DALLAS — Lonnie Chalmers says the City of Dallas wrongfully made him register as a sex offender for 13 years.
Now he wants the city to pay up.
"I just feel like I deserve to be recompensed for what's done happen in all this," said Chalmers, 43. "I just feel like it's wrong."
Chalmers filed a $3 million federal lawsuit early last month, saying police violated his civil rights by refusing to recognize that he did not have a legal obligation to register. He filed the lawsuit after the city ultimately agreed that he did not have to register as a sex offender.
In Chalmers' case, a judge set aside his conviction for sexual assault in 2000. But the City of Dallas long contended that he had to register as a sex offender.
City officials did not respond to a request for comment.
"A lawsuit over this is extremely rare, and success is probably even more rare," said Scott Smith, an Austin attorney with extensive expertise in the state’s sex registration laws.
That Chalmers was successful in his effort deeply concerns Courtney Underwood, a rape victim’s advocate. She believes that state laws needs to be revised so Chalmers and those like him would be required to register.
"[It's] the entire reason for having the sex offender registry and required reporting; and having that last over a long period of time; so that even once someone finishes probation or once they finish their jail time, then there's still a way for the community to track them," Underwood said.
Chalmers’ legal problems began in 1995 when he said he picked up a 15-year-old teenager from a bus stop and had sex with her. He was soon arrested.
In 1996, Chalmers pleaded guilty to sexual assault.
A judge ordered that he serve five years' probation. As part of the deal, he agreed to register as a sex offender for 10 years upon completion of his probation.
Chalmers went into sex offender treatment and "accepted full responsibility for his sex crime," his therapist wrote in 1999. "Mr. Chalmers has been an active participant in-group and gives constructive feedback to the other members. His performance has been excellent."
At the time of Chalmers' sentencing, state law let judges set aside convictions in cases like his.
That is no longer permitted under state law. In 1999, legislators amended the statute to preclude judges from setting aside convictions in cases for "a defendant convicted of an offense for which on conviction registration as a sex offender is required."
But since he was sentenced under pre-1999 laws, the judge was able to set aside Chalmers' conviction in 2000.
Chalmers said he repeatedly showed his court paperwork to Dallas officials, telling them that he was not required to register.
A detective told him that "that he didn’t care what a judge said; I was his for life,” Chalmers said. “I was going to have to register."
Chalmers started studying the law. He earned several bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Texas at Dallas. He wanted to go into social work, but hasn’t been able to find a steady work.
He thinks it’s because he was having to register.
"It’s going to make anybody say, 'He’s convicted. He’s a rapist,'" Chalmers said.
Smith said he represented two clients in the last year who were in a similar situation as Chalmers in that they were being forced to register even though they were not legally obligated to do so. He succeeded in getting the Texas Department of Public Safety to remove them from the registry.
“I am sure that I have not just happened to find the only two cases here that that has ever happened,” he said.
But Smith said the Chalmers case points to another longstanding problem.
"The idea of the sex offender registry is to provide a helpful list to the public and law enforcement of people who are high-risk," Smith said. "The problem is that registration requires those people and many, many people who are very low-risk."
Chalmers filed a lawsuit against the city in 2010. He contended that he was not legally obligated to register.
In court filings, the city cited court rulings that sex offender registration is not punishment; can be extended; and can be made retroactive. The city argued that imposing a lifetime registration on Chalmers was legal.
Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened in the case, filing a brief in support of Dallas’ position.
The case wound its way through the courts for several years.
In December 2013, Chalmers won when the city agreed that he was right and settled with him.
"It is further ordered, adjudged and decreed that Chalmers has no duty or obligation arising from his former conviction … to register as a sex offender,” the final order stated.
These days, Chalmers works odd jobs and drives trucks. He lives with his common-law life and twin nine-year-old girls.
Chalmers agrees that there’s a need for sex offender registration laws, but believes he has simply been done wrong and that's why he's filed his latest lawsuit.
"I've never hid the fact that I've had my offense to nobody who knows me, and I’ve never made no complaint and crying about it," he said. "It's just the fact that I don’t have a conviction and I haven’t had a conviction for 13 years, and I just think that’s fundamentally unfair."