FARGO — The Fargo Police Department is allowing sex offenders to register by phone in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, while other local law enforcement agencies continue the registration process with few changes.
Fargo police made the switch March 19, the same day it closed the lobby of its headquarters. The department is making several adjustments to its operations to limit contact amid the global pandemic, and having sex offenders register via phone is one of them.
“If a new registrant who has never registered with Fargo does show up to register at the police department, there is a sign that gives them instructions to call into our records bureau and the registration process would begin from there," Detective Mark Voigtschild said in an email.
Meanwhile, the Cass County Sheriff's Office is allowing sex offenders to call in address changes, but deputies still will check in on the registrants, Sheriff Jesse Jahner said. The agency's first-time registrations will be done in person, he said.
West Fargo police are delaying fingerprinting of sex offenders, but in-person registration will continue, Assistant Chief Jerry Boyer said in an email. The agency uses a kiosk and other technology to register offenders.
"Any close contact portion of the registration has been suspended, but we will continue, as long as we can, to do what we can to register those individuals required under law to register safely," Boyer said.
Moorhead police are also not making any changes to their in-person sex offender registration process.
"They will have some restricted access to coming into the (Law Enforcement Center), as everyone else, but we will still make sure they are up-to-date," Capt. Deric Swenson said, noting that Moorhead police looked into remote registration but found that Minnesota requires the department to obtain signatures for paperwork.
Of the 412 registered predatory offenders in the Minnesota database, seven were in Clay County as of Friday, March 27, all of whom live, work or go to school in Moorhead.
In North Dakota, 365 sex offenders are in Cass County — about 300 in Fargo and 40 in West Fargo, according to the state attorney general's office. The state has 1,957 registered offenders.
Typically, an offender who lives, works or goes to school in North Dakota must visit a local law enforcement agency to register. Officers take a photo of the offender. Agencies also collect DNA and fingerprints from offenders, but that is currently on hold at the Fargo Police Department, Voigtschild said.
The North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, which oversees the statewide database for sex offenders, told law enforcement agencies in a March 18 letter the state would accept registration forms not signed by offenders if offices were closed to the public.
“The registration forms still need to be completed, but the process can be accomplished over the phone with the offender,” the letter said, adding that agencies can work with offenders to get an updated photo if needed.
The National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws has called on law enforcement agencies nationwide to suspend in-person sex offender registration. The civil rights group said having offenders register in person would be unreasonable. It would “put people in harm’s way unnecessarily, including government and law enforcement employees as well as registrants and their family members and loved ones,” the group said in a statement.
“Many registered individuals are senior citizens or others who suffer from a variety of health issues, any one of which puts them at increased risk of dying from the COVID-19 virus should they contract it,” the group said.
It’s unclear if the Fargo Police Department will continue to use remote options after the pandemic dies down, as it would be up to the state to allow that option, Voigtschild said.
"Temporary modifications to procedures that were necessitated by a public health crisis are just that — temporary," attorney general's office spokeswoman Liz Brocker said in an email.
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