As part of CCR’s discriminatory policing, sexual and gender-based violence, and LGBTQI persecution work, CCR successfully challenged Louisiana’s requirement that those charged under the archaic and discriminatory Crime Against Nature by Solicitation statute register as sex offenders. Below is an interview with one of our clients, Wendi Cooper, who was removed from the registry because of CCR’s case.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you were forced to register as a sex offender?
I remember applying for a job at a healthcare company when I was first registered as a sex offender. I knew someone who worked there. They hired me, and I had been working there for 5 years in good standing. Then, one of the employees found out I was a registered sex offender (RSO) after he saw my photo in the weekly paper, in a section that listed RSOs. This employee made copies of that paper and posted them in the residence rooms and on the office door of the administrator of the facility. I lost my job.
In another incident, during a traffic stop a police officer discovered that I am transgender. He physically attacked me and took me to jail. When they released me the same night, the officer found out that I was a sex offender and he forced me to perform oral sex on him. He told me that if I didn’t, I would spend 5 years in jail because I was a registered sex offender.
And for years, it was hard for me to get housing. It was hard for me to live a productive life due to the fact that I was a RSO. It hindered me from a lot of things.
Why did you decide to challenge this in federal court?
I feel that the charge that I was convicted for—Crime Against Nature by Solicitation—was unjust. I became a RSO because of a conversation—an undercover officer propositioned and put his hands on me, before charging me under the CANS law. I pled guilty because I was threatened with five years in prison. Neither my conviction nor my registration as a sex offender were the result of any actual sex act. I also feel that it was vital for me to challenge the sex offender requirement because it was affecting me mentally. At times, I was scared to be around children because, being a RSO, I didn’t want anyone to judge me or think I was messing with a child. I wanted to be free from the stigma.
Do you remember how you felt when the ruling that your registration was unconstitutional came down?
I remember around 8:30 at night, I got a call from one of the lawyers that was handling the case—CCR’s Alexis Agathocleous. He called me with a quiet voice to let me know about the ruling in the case. I was silent. Then he said, “We won!” I was in disbelief. I didn’t know if it was a joke. I didn’t know what to think. He asked me “How do you feel?” And, I was like, “I don’t know.” I didn’t know how to feel. I was so used to the patterns of being a registered sex offender. For 10 years, I had to go down to the police station to make sure I was in compliance. When I went to get my ID changed to get the sex offender logo off my ID card then really I felt like I was no longer a RSO. Now, I can present my ID card to people without shame and I can present my ID with dignity. I was happy that I was able to help not only myself, but also 800 other people, to be removed from the sex offender registry by not being silent. That was one of the most joyous days of my life. I can get up every morning knowing that I don’t have to register anymore over something that I feel and believe was unjust.
How has this impacted your life (for the better)?
I am able to get a job! When managers are doing background checks, “sex offender” is not on the criminal report. I am able to get housing. I am able to go into schools without notifying any superintendents and things like that. I am able to be around children without having the sex offender registration logo on my ID. The fear of being around children went away when I no longer had to register as a sex offender. I feel more empowered now that I am no longer registered as a sex offender. When you are a RSO it’s like you have no rights. Who is going to believe a sex offender?
What challenges do you still face?
One challenge I still face is adopting a child. I am always taking care of someone else’s kids and I want my own kids. I went through a training class that I had to attend for two or three days that covered the ins and outs of fostering children. I completed the class and was given a packet asking about my family history and background. They ran a background check and discovered that my previous name was Wendell. They also found out that I was listed as a RSO until October 2014. But I am not forced to register as a sex offender anymore. This charge and registration has kept me from adopting a child, but I thought that this situation was over. Not being able to adopt a child has really hurt me.
What do you think is something everyone should be thinking about this Pride Month?
Things are finally changing for the better for the LGBTQ population! We are not finished fighting, but there are definitely doors opening especially around gay marriage and bathroom rights.