Sex Offender Records

What is a Sex Offender?

A sex offender refers to an individual (adult or juvenile) who committed and was convicted or adjudicated for a sexual offense. In the United States, the power to process and prosecute people for sex crimes rests with the federal, state, and tribal courts and law enforcement agencies. As such, laws governing the US jurisdictions (the US states, District of Columbia, principal US territories, and federally recognized Indian tribes) specify various criminal offenses that constitute sex crimes in their domains.

Regardless of the jurisdiction where a sex offense occurs, the penalties for sexual crimes are usually severe—and are sometimes intensified if the crime is deemed an aggravated offense. However, while a sex offender can be sentenced to jail or prison, ordered to pay a fine, put on probation, placed in a chemical or mental treatment program, mandated to register as a sex offender, and more, the severity of the penalty varies by jurisdiction.

Typically, courts in the US states, District of Columbia, territories, and Indian tribes can exercise their jurisdictional authority over a sex offense when it occurs within their judicial district. The federal courts may get involved when the crime crosses state lines, involves a child victim or internet use, takes place on federal property, or is part of a federal investigation.

At the same time, a case can fall under federal and state jurisdiction and be tried by both without violating the double jeopardy clause. Also, as federal courts have higher authority, they can cede jurisdiction to the state courts. In the same way, the state courts can elevate a case to the federal level if an offender violates federal law. As federal crimes are regarded more seriously, a sex offender will often receive a heavier sentence than when convicted by a non-federal court.

In addition to the legal repercussions, being accused of a sexual offense or registering as a sex offender can damage a person’s reputation and have far-reaching consequences. Even when the allegations do not lead to a conviction, the individual can still experience difficulties keeping their job, getting a job, finding accommodation, and obtaining financing. Sex offender laws may also constrain a convicted offender from living near or visiting public parks, churches, schools, playgrounds, daycare facilities, and other places where children gather.

Who is Considered a Sex Offender?

Some US jurisdictions have specific definitions for the term "sex offender" in their constitutions or laws, while others outline the sex offenses that can lead to a conviction. Nevertheless, all jurisdictions generally consider a sex offender as someone accused and convicted of a sex crime. Indeed, even federal law defines a sex offender as a person who has been convicted of a sex crime (Title I, Section 111 of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006).

Most US jurisdictions often expand on their "sex offender" definitions to reflect the unlawful sexual acts in their regions and encompass other people who can be deemed sex offenders based on the type or number of crimes they committed.

For instance, state legislatures may establish a category for persons predisposed to committing violent sexual crimes because of a mental or personality disorder. These persons are referred to as violent sexual predators (sometimes "sexually dangerous persons"). Other "sex offender" categories that may be created include habitual sex offender, child sexual offender, sexually violent offender, repeat offender, recidivist sex offender, etc.

Case in point, Wyoming regards people found guilty of aiding and abetting in the commission of a sex offense as sex offenders, and Maryland further segregates these individuals into child sexual offenders, sexually violent offenders, and sexually violent predators. Additionally, Maryland's expansion of the definition of sex offender mirrors Tennessee's, where convicted parties are classified as sexual offenders, violent sexual offenders, or violent juvenile sexual offenders, and so on.

What are the Different Types of Sex Offenses?

An individual becomes a sex offender when convicted of a sex offense. However, the tribal, state, and federal laws recognize various sex crimes. Thus, how a sex crime (say, sexual assault) is defined in one jurisdiction may not be the same way it is defined in another. Also, the penalties ascribed to unlawful sexual acts or conducts differ at state and federal levels, between states, and in the US territories and tribes.

Federal law, 34 U.S.C. § 20911(5), otherwise known as the Amie Zyla expansion of sex offense definition, outlines what constitutes a sex offense in the country:

  • A criminal offense involving sexual contact or a sexual act with someone else. In this context, criminal offense means a local, tribal, state, foreign, or military offense (as described by the Secretary of Defense under Public Law 105-119, Section 115(a)(8)(C)(i)) or other criminal offense.
  • A criminal offense that is considered a "specified offense against a minor." According to 34 U.S.C. § 20911(7), "specified offense against a minor" refers to any of the following offenses where a minor (person under 18 years of age) is the victim:
    • Non-parental kidnapping
    • Non-parental false imprisonment
    • Use in a sexual performance
    • Solicitation to engage in sexual conduct
    • Solicitation to practice prostitution
    • Video voyeurism
    • Production, possession, or distribution of child pornography
    • Criminal sexual conduct with a minor, or using the internet to facilitate or attempt such an act.
    • Any conduct that is a sex crime against a minor
  • A federal offense indicated below, including an offense tried under Title 18, Sections 1152 and 1153:
  • A military offense indicated by the Secretary of Defense in Public Law 105-119, Section 115(a)(8)(C)(i).
  • Any conspiracy or attempt to commit the above offenses.

Furthermore, subparagraphs (B) and (C) of the 34 U.S.C. § 20911 (5) indicate what does not constitute a sex offense. For instance, a crime involving consensual sexual conduct is not a sex offense if the victim was 18 years or more (an adult). However, it will become a sex offense if:

  • The perpetrator had custodial authority over the adult victim at the time of the offense, or
  • The victim was 13 years old or higher, and the perpetrator was not more than 4 years older than the victim.

Below are some examples of sex offenses identified by federal law, as well as their associated penalties. The definitions of terms (including sexual act, serious bodily injury, and sexual contact) used subsequently can be found in 18 U.S.C. § 2246. Again, note that the federal definitions of a sexual act, behavior, or conduct may vary from the definitions of other jurisdictions. The penalties differ as well, with federal sentencing being more severe.

Sexual abuse: Anyone who knowingly performs the following acts is guilty of sexual abuse:

  • Causes someone to engage in a sexual act by threatening or placing them in fear (except threats involving death, kidnapping, or serious bodily injury); or
  • Participates in a sexual act with an individual who is incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct, or is physically helpless

Any offender convicted under the sexual abuse statute, including those who attempted the crime, will be fined and imprisoned. The prison sentence can be for any length of time or for life. In sentencing sexual abuse offenders, the federal courts may use the federal sentencing guidelines manual or impose a variance (a sentence outside these guidelines). According to the FY 2020 report published by the United States Sentencing Commission in June 2021, 881 sexual abuse offenders received federal sentencing, and the average sentence was 201 months.

Aggravated sexual abuse: This crime is essentially "sexual abuse," but with aggravating elements. Federal law defines the offense as a sexual act committed intentionally using force or threat, other means, or done with children, including attempts to commit this offense.

  • Force or threat: Whoever knowingly causing someone to partake in a sexual act in the following manner is guilty of aggravated sexual abuse:
    • By using force against the other individual, or
    • Threatening or placing the individual in fear of death, kidnapping, or serious bodily injury.
  • Other means: Anyone who knowingly performs the following acts is guilty of aggravated sexual abuse:
    • Renders someone else unconscious to engage in a sexual act with them
    • Administers (by force, the threat of force, or without a person's knowledge or permission) a drug, intoxicant, or another similar substance to:
      • Partake in a sexual act with the person, or
      • Considerably impair the person from appraising or controlling the conduct.
  • With children: Anyone who knowingly engages in the following acts with a child is guilty of aggravated sexual abuse:
    • Crosses state lines to engage in a sexual act with a child who is not yet 12 years old,
    • Participates in a sexual act with an individual who is not yet 12 years old, or
    • Engages in a sexual act by force or threat or other means (as described above) with a child who is 12 years old but not yet 16 (and child is at least 4 years younger than the perpetrator).

For aggravated sexual abuse crimes perpetrated with force, threat, or other means, the courts can impose fines, imprisonment for any number of years or for life, or both.

If the act was performed on a child, the minimum sentence is 30 years, and the maximum is life. However, if the accused has a former conviction for a federal aggravated sexual abuse offense involving children, or a state offense that would constitute such an offense if it took place in federal prison, the individual will be sentenced to life imprisonment, except a death sentence is imposed. When prosecuting an aggravated sexual abuse offense involving children, the government does not need to demonstrate that the accused knew that the child victim was under 12 years of age.

Sexual abuse of a minor or ward: An individual is guilty of this crime if they intentionally engage, or attempt to engage, in a sexual act with a minor (someone 12 years old or more, but not over 16) and the minor is at least four younger than the individual. The punishment is a fine assessed by the court, imprisonment not exceeding 15 years, or both.

Also, if the victim is a ward (someone in official detention or under the custodial, supervisory, or disciplinary authority of the perpetrator) and the perpetrator engages in a sexual act with them, the penalty is as follows:

  • A fine assessed by the court,
  • Imprisonment not exceeding 15 years, or
  • A combination of the above penalties.

Nevertheless, it is a defense that the defendant reasonably believed the other party [the minor] was 16 years old or more, or that the alleged victim was a spouse when the conduct took place, provided the defendant can offer sufficient evidence of these claims.

Misleading domain names on the internet: This occurs when someone purposely uses a misleading domain name on the web to deceive another into viewing obscene material. The punishment is imprisonment not over 2 years, a fine, or both.

However, suppose the perpetrator tricks a minor (individual less than 18 years old) into viewing any harmful material on the internet. In that case, the sentence is raised to 10 years, but not above that amount.

Misleading digital images or words on the internet: A person can be charged with this crime when they intentionally embed digital images or words into a website's source code to trick another person into viewing obscene material. A perpetrator can be fined, sentenced to prison for 10 years or less, or both.

However, if the victim is a minor and the intent was to trick the minor into viewing any harmful material on the internet, the maximum sentence is elevated to 20 years.

According to 18 U.S.C. § 2252B(d), a material that is considered "harmful to minors" includes any communication, consisting of sex, nudity, or excretion, that as a whole or in context:

  • largely appeals to a lewd interest of minors;
  • is clearly offensive when compared to the adult community's prevailing standards of what is appropriate for minors;
  • lacks serious artistic, literary, scientific, or political value for minors.

What Types of Sex Offenders Exist?

The US states and other jurisdictions often distinguish sex offenders by their convictions and risk to society. This categorization of sex offenders is usually by tiers or levels (Tier I, II, and III; Level 1, 2, and 3), and it stems from the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA).

SORNA, a federal statute, was enacted in 2006 as Title I of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. SORNA establishes a comprehensive set of minimum standards for sex offender registration and notification in the country. The purpose being to protect the public, particularly children, from sexually violent crimes.

The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act reinforces the standards for sex offender registration by expanding on the persons eligible to register as sex offenders, and the duration of their duty to register. It also establishes periodic in-person updates for sex offenders (i.e., the intervals at which registered sex offenders must visit a law enforcement agency to update or verify their registration data). Furthermore, it outlines the type of sex offender information that should be maintained on a public registry.

Per SORNA, sex offenders are classified into tiers descriptive of their sex conviction, the likelihood of future unlawful sexual acts, and the duration they must spend registered as sex offenders. These tiers are Tier I, II, and III, with Tier 1 reserved for the least severe sex crimes and Tier III for the most severe. (Some states, e.g., Washington, may use the Level 1, 2, and 3 or Level I, II, and III categorizations instead.)

SORNA § 111(2), (3), and (4) define the tiers as follows (these definitions can also be found in 34 U.S.C. §20911):

Tier I sex offender: Defined as a sex offender who does not meet the Tier II or III criteria. A Tier I sex offender can be someone required to register as a sex offender but whose sex offense is not punishable by a sentence over a year. In the country, sex offenses handled by the Indian tribal courts are punishable by incarceration not exceeding a year, as these offenses are classified as misdemeanors. Therefore, all persons convicted in a tribal court are classified as Tier I offenders.

Also, per the National Guidelines for Sex Offender Registration and Notification, section V, a Tier I sex offender can be an individual convicted of the possession or receipt of child pornography.

Tier I sex offenders must appear in person at their registering law enforcement agency each year to verify the information collected during their registration.

Tier II sex offender: Defined as a sex offender who does not meet the Tier III criteria but whose crime attracts imprisonment for more than a year, and:

  • The crime is similar to or more serious than the following offenses, when performed against a minor, or an attempt/conspiracy to commit such offenses against a minor:
  • The crime involves:
    • Child pornography (production or distribution);
    • Solicitation of a minor to engage in prostitution; or
    • Use of a minor in a sexual performance
  • The crime occurs after the offender is designated as a Tier I sex offender.

Tier II sex offenders must appear in person at their registering law enforcement agency every 6 months to verify the information collected during their registration.

Tier III sex offender: This term refers to an individual whose sex offense is punishable by incarceration for more than a year, and:

  • The offense is similar or more serious than those outlined below, or is an attempt or conspiracy to commit such offenses:
    • Sexual abuse or aggravated sexual abuse
    • Abusive sexual contact, where the minor victim is below 13 years of age
  • The offense involves the non-parental kidnapping of a minor, or
  • The offense takes place after the offender is given the Tier II sex offender designation.

Unlike Tier I and II sex offenders, Tier III offenders have the shortest verification periods. They are required to go to their registering agencies every 3 months to update their records.

Generally, all US jurisdictions (states, principal territories, the District of Columbia, and Indian tribes) comply with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. However, because SORNA is only meant as a baseline for sex offender registration and notification programs in the country, jurisdictions can go beyond SORNA's requirements and establish standards fitting to the areas where they hold authority.

For example, not all US jurisdictions stick to SORNA's tier-based system of classifying sex offenders. Some prefer to group offenders by the number of years they will spend registered: 15-year registrants, 25-year registrants, and lifetime registrants. Others may:

  • Extend or reduce their registration periods (e.g., Tier I sex offenders in Maine are required to register for 10 years, while Kentucky uses only 20-year and lifetime registration periods for sex offenders);
  • Subject all qualified sex offenders to lifetime registration;
  • Require offenders to verify their information more regularly;
  • Expand on the sex offenses that qualify for a particular tier designation;
  • Change the timeframe within which an offender must report changes to their registration profiles;
  • Establish an additional tier. (For instance, Arkansas has a Level 4 sex offender category.)

How To Find a Sex Offender Near Me

Citizens of the United States and other interested parties can find sex offenders with online sex offender registries and through law enforcement agencies.

Pursuant to the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, certain sex offenders become subject to registration when convicted of specific sexual crimes (particularly those involving children or violence). When an offender registers with a law enforcement agency located where they live, work, school, or were incarcerated or convicted, certain parts of their record become available for public perusal to prevent further victimization in society. This information includes:

  • Names and aliases
  • Date of birth
  • Physical description (sex, race, eye color, hair color, height, weight, scars/marks/tattoos)
  • Home, work, and school addresses
  • Online identifiers
  • Employer information
  • Professional licenses
  • Driver's license or state ID card information
  • Offense and conviction information (and the applicable statute that was violated)
  • Criminal history
  • Vehicle information
  • Current photograph

Consequently, the public can query their law enforcement agencies for the above sex offender information or browse a local, state, or federal sex offender registry remotely to root out sex offenders or sexual predators living, schooling, or working in their neighborhoods.

However, note that some jurisdictions limit the information accessible online to Tier II and III sex offenders, but provide Tier I sex offender information at local law enforcement agencies.

Also, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act does not mandate registration for juveniles adjudicated delinquent for a sex offense that would require an adult person to register as a sex offender. As such, some states do not publish juvenile sex offender information on the internet unless the juvenile (person under 18 years of age at the time of the offense) was prosecuted as an adult for a serious sexual crime. Juvenile sex offender information may, however, be available at a local law enforcement agency.

What is a Sex Offender Registry?

Per 34 U.S.C. §20911(9), a "sex offender registry" is a registry of sex offenders, and a notification program, that a US jurisdiction maintains. In simple terms, the registry is a searchable database containing extensive information about certain convicted sex offenders.

Under Section 118(a) of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, jurisdictions of the United States must maintain an internet site containing information about every sex offender convicted of a registrable sex offense. Such a site must be accessible to the public.

Presently, all 50 states, the 5 major territories, and many federally recognized Indian tribes maintain such sex offender registry sites. An interested individual can search these registries to view the locations and identities of sex offenders in their counties, parishes, and tribes. These registry sites can also be accessed from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's website.

However, rather than search each jurisdiction's registry independently, the US Department of Justice offers a tool to enable the public to search for sex offenders across multiple jurisdictions (states, territories, and tribes) at the same time. It is called the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry (or NSOPW).

To search the NSOPW database, all one needs is an internet-enabled device, and:

  • An offender's first and last name, or
  • An address (to search within a radius of one's location)

Inquirers can also use the "Advanced search" feature to search with a name (first and last) and/or a ZIP code. They can also filter search results with a county, city, or by selecting a specific US state, territory, or Indian tribe.

What Happens When You Register as a Sex Offender?

Becoming a sex offender comes with serious—often catastrophic—repercussions in the United States. Unlike other criminal offenses, the penalties do not end with one's conviction or incarceration. An individual may find that they continue paying for their crime for the rest of their natural lives.

One striking penalty (and perhaps the most devastating one) imposed on sex offenders is "sex offender registration." Any person whose sexual offense triggers such registration will immediately lose certain rights and freedoms.

For one, they will lose the right to privacy, as their names, addresses, driver's license numbers, vehicle information, and more will become public information. Secondly, they will be accountable to law enforcement. This means that the police must always be kept apprised of their whereabouts and any changes made to an offender’s registration data (e.g., change of name, address, or other) must be reported in person at the registering agency. Also, the offender must give prior notice to law enforcement before traveling out of a region and update their registration information at the intervals required by law.

Furthermore, a registered sex offender will, more often than not, face stigma from society because of their label. This can cause career downfalls, job losses, and challenges in obtaining housing, even though some jurisdictions do not impose residency restrictions on sex offenders.

However, suppose the jurisdiction imposes restrictions on where a sex offender can live. In that case, a convicted offender will be further restricted from being in the presence of certain individuals (typically children) and visiting playgrounds, public parks, churches, daycare centers, etc. Arkansas and Wyoming are examples of US states with residency limitations.

Deciding not to comply with the sex offender registration and notification laws of a US jurisdiction is not an option for any sex offender. It only leads to more sanctions. If sentenced by a state court for a willful failure to register, the offender may be able to get away with a moderate sentence, fine, or both (though the penalty may be enhanced with repeated violations). However, federal laws are more unforgiving. Per 18 U.S.C. § 2250, anyone who knowingly fails to register or verify their registration information as required can face up to 10 years in prison and incur fines. If the offender purposefully fails to register or update as needed and commits a violent federal offense, the prison sentence can be extended to 30 years (with a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence).

Under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, a sex offender may be eligible for relief from sex offender registration. This means that, after a certain number of years pass, an offender can apply to the relevant authority (typically the sentencing court) to terminate the duty to register if certain criteria are met:

  • The offender maintained a clean record throughout their registration period;
  • The offender satisfied all court-ordered obligations
  • The offender completed an appropriate treatment program, and
  • The offender is not a threat to public safety.

However, the court can grant or deny the offender's petition.

While several jurisdictions have a relief provision for sex offenders, it mostly applies to Tier I and II sex offenders convicted of less serious offenses and Tier III juvenile registrants adjudicated delinquent. Tier III adult sex offenders usually have no reprieve from the duty to register and remain on the registry for their entire lives unless they receive a pardon—and that occurs rarely.

Interested members of the public may also obtain public record information from third-party websites. These privately owned sites typically host data culled from public databases and repositories. However, the information available on third-party sites may vary since they are independent of government sources. In order to use a third-party site, record seekers may be required to provide all or some of the following information:

  • The full name on the record of choice
  • The last known or current address of the named individual
  • The address of the requestor