The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to close a legal loophole that enables military sex offenders to evade registering with civilian law enforcement.
On a 98-0 vote, Senators adopted the Military Sex Offender Reporting Act as an amendment to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which the Senate passed later Wednesday afternoon.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., requires the Department of Defense to register offenders directly with an FBI database available to civilian law enforcement agencies and the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website prior to an offender’s release from a military prison.
Burr, who serves as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke on the Senate floor prior to the vote and cited findings from an ongoing Scripps News investigation in urging his colleagues to approve the amendment.
“Differences in state laws and military reporting procedures enable some criminals to totally evade reporting and detection,” Burr told the Senate. “A recent Scripps News report revealed grim examples of the consequences of these cracks in the system.”
Burr cited the case of Matt Carr, a former member of the U.S. Air Force who spent seven years in a military prison following a court martial conviction for the indecent assault of seven women. Carr posed as a gynecologist to gain access to his victims. He got out of military prison, never registered, and found a new civilian victim in Wisconsin.
Burr also told his colleagues about former Marine Derrick Coston. On separate occasions while serving as a chief warrant officer, he engaged in bizarre activity with three 12-year-old babysitters. He instructed them to wear his wife’s shoes and walk on his nude or partially nude body, then he rubbed their feet against his genitals. Coston was sentenced to five years in military prison following a conviction for conduct unbecoming an officer -- an offense that doesn’t easily translate to civilian crimes or require registration in most states, including Arizona, where Scripps found Coston.
Burr described Coston’s sexual assaults as taking place on “three minors in the cruelest way possible. He evaded registration and Scripps located this individual living within a mile of a school.”
The nine-month Scripps News investigation Burr referred to found hundreds of convicted military sex offenders who did not appear on sex offender registries created to alert the public and prevent repeat crimes. Of 1,312 cases, at least 242 were not on any public U.S. sex offender registry.
Burr’s amendment began as a standalone bill in February that at first only made the names of military sex offenders available to civilian law enforcement agencies, but not the general public.
Representative Jackie Speier, D-Calif., followed up less than a week later with a bipartisan effort in the House, introducing a bill that would inform both law enforcement and the public.
Burr’s amendment in the Senate, which had 15 bipartisan cosponsors by the time it was added on to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, adopted the House push to inform the general public.
Speier’s bill, which remains active in the House, would require the Department of Defense to create its own sex offender registry, in contrast with the Senate’s solution where the military would register an offender directly with existing civilian authorities.
Legislative sources from both the House and the Senate cite the seriousness of the public safety issues in explaining why they expect the two sides to work out any remaining differences in short order.