Civil Liberties

What This Crime Problem Needs Is Another List

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A California couple wrongly accused of abusing their teenager was arrested and had their other children removed from their home. They've since been cleared of the charges, but no one seems to know how to take them off the state's list of child abusers. Under California law, local authorities are required to add to the list anyone even accused of abusing children, even if they've yet to be charged. The problem is that the law apparently offers no guidance on who has the authority to remove people once they've been cleared.

When the Humphrieses first tried to be removed from the index, they were told to contact the deputy who filed the original report. But he said the complaint was "substantiated" at the time he filed it, and therefore, could not remove their names…

The Humphrieses had sued in federal court, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated. They won in 2008 before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the system is unconstitutional because it does not give innocent people a procedure to have their names removed.

More than a year later, state officials say they are still pondering the matter. "We're still in the process of determining what is needed to comply with the 9th Circuit's decision," said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the California Department of Justice.

"There is no effective way for the Humphries to challenge this listing, and no way for them to be removed from the listing," the appeals court said. Because L.A. County played a role in their ordeal, the appeals court said it too could be forced to pay damages.

Timothy Coates, an L.A. lawyer who represented the county in its appeal, argued that the county did not devise the state index and is not free to change it.

"We agree that once people get on the list, it is very difficult to get off it. The question is: Who is responsible for that? We don't have the ability to change the law," he said. It was that issue that the court agreed to hear Monday.

Meanwhile, California's legislators are mulling whether to become the first state in the country with an animal abuse registry.