By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
NEW ORLEANS – A federal judge is weighing a bid to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a Louisiana law that has required people convicted of soliciting oral or anal sex to register as sex offenders.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman didn’t immediately rule Wednesday after hearing the state’s request to throw out the lawsuit over its 200-year-old “crimes against nature” law.
Civil rights attorneys who filed the suit claim the law is unconstitutional and discriminatory, unfairly condemning sex acts traditionally associated with homosexuality. The plaintiffs aren’t, however, challenging their convictions or trying to get the “crimes against nature” law taken off the books.
The state says the plaintiffs- an anonymous group of registered sex offenders- don’t have a constitutionally protected right to privacy after being convicted of engaging in sex acts for money.
When somebody is suspected of soliciting oral or anal sex, police and prosecutors can charge that individual either with prostitution or a crime against nature. Unlike the latter charge, however, a prostitution conviction alone doesn’t require anybody to register as a sex offender.
“There’s no difference between these two statutes,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Alexis Agathocleous, a New York-based lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “And that’s what is irrational about the sentencing scheme.”
Feldman pressed Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Glazer to explain why the Legislature enacted two statutes that punish the same conduct but carry different penalties.
“The language of the two statutes is different,” Glazer said.
“The substance is the same, except you seem to disagree with me,” Feldman responded.
Glazer said the charge of “crimes against nature” punishes bestiality while a prostitution charge doesn’t, but the judge wasn’t swayed by that distinction.
“Dogs, horses, cats, parakeets, they can’t charge money,” he said.
The state Legislature amended the law this year. As of Aug. 15, anyone convicted of a “crime against nature by solicitation” no longer will be required to register as a sex offender.
But the change doesn’t apply to roughly 400 people who already have been convicted of the crime and are registered sex offenders, according to Davida Finger, a Loyola University law professor.
Feldman said the Aug. 15 change is “pivotal” to him because it seems to arbitrarily treat people differently based on whether they were convicted before or after that date.
“It’s the Aug. 15 issue that really draws my attention,” he said.
Finger said the crimes-against-nature law discriminates against a vulnerable population of women who have difficulty finding jobs and housing once they’re registered as sex offenders.
“It’s a serious, serious issue for their lives,” she said after the hearing. “Some of them were forced into the sex trade by circumstance and poverty.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal is named as a defendant in the suit, but the state argues he is entitled to immunity.