Georgia's New Sex Offender Law Nixed
The law, which bad been slated to go into affect July 1, prohibits people registered as sex offenders of any kind from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.
The Southern Center for Human Rights and several people targeted by the law are arguing in a class-action lawsuit that it is unconstitutional because it does not distinguish between people who are violent sexual predators and those who are in the registry for having consensual sex with under-age peers.
One of the named plaintiffs is in the registry merely for failing to stop her under-age daughter from having sex with another teen.
On Friday, Judge Clarence Cooper issued a temporary restraining order, forbidding state agents from enforcing the law until the case is decided in court. The ruling widened an earlier decision by Cooper which had enjoined the state from enforcing the law against the nine named plaintiffs in the case. In applying the injunction to all registered sex offenders, Cooper validated plaintiffs’ request for their case to be considered a class-action suit.
In 2003, Georgia passed a law prohibiting individuals required to register as sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, childcare facilities, public and private parks, recreation facilities, playgrounds, skating rinks, neighborhood centers, gymnasiums, and similar facilities.
One of the named plaintiffs is in the registry merely for failing to stop her under-age daughter from having sex with another teen.In April of this year, Governor Sonny Perdue signed a law that added school bus stops to the list of places 1,000 feet from which registered sex offenders were prohibited to live. The revised law also makes it illegal for people so-designated to work within 1,000 feet of a church, childcare facility or school.
Wendy Whitaker, 26, is a plaintiff in the case. According to the complaint filed on her and the others’ behalf, Whitaker plead guilty to a "sodomy" charge when she was 17 years old, after being caught engaging in consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old boy. She was required to register as a sex offender as part of her sentence, and was forced to move in with family members when the 2003 law went into affect because the home she owned was within 1,000 feet of a church.
Another plaintiff, Janet Allison, is registered as a sex offender, according to the complaint, because she was convicted in 2002 of being party to a crime of statutory rape and party to a crime of child molestation. The charges stemmed from her teenage daughter’s pregnancy after her daughter had consensual sex with another teen.
The plaintiffs argue that the law "does not provide for individualized justice" because it "provides no process to distinguish between people on the registry who are dangerous to children and those who are not."
The plaintiffs argue that the law “does not provide for individualized justice.”Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue in the complaint that the law "contains no ‘safety valve’ provision to permit persons" such as the plaintiffs "to appeal to a court to determine whether the residency restrictions are appropriate for them." They also insist that, "by imposing punishment without an individualized showing of dangerousness or an individual opportunity to obtain an exception to the law, the Act deprives plaintiffs of their property and livelihood without due process."
If the new law goes into affect, both Whitaker and Allison will be forced to move. Allison has already been informed by county sheriffs that she must move, and, according to the complaint, she has unsuccessfully searched in five counties for an affordable home that would allow her to comply with the new law.
In promoting the law, State House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R) said he thought it would convince sex offenders to leave Georgia.
In an interview with the LA Times, Keen acknowledged the law would be "an inconvenience" for "some folks" who would have to move. "But," he said, "if you weigh that argument against the overall impact, which is the safety of children, most folks would agree this is a good thing."
Many sex offenders – those who are still on probation or parole – cannot legally leave the state, however, until they go through the lengthy process of applying to transfer supervision to another state.
"The act does not force people out of the state," wrote the lawyers for the plaintiffs. "It forces them onto the street."U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper considering whether to expand TRO to protect all of Georgia's registered sex offenders
On Monday, June 26 - Federal US District Judge Clarence Cooper blocked a new Georgia sex offenders law scheduled to go into effect July 1 that would bar registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of school bus stops anywhere in the state.
The ruling came on the appeal of eight sex offenders who were represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights. The judge's temporary restraining order prevents the state from forcing those eight defendants to move.
U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper said that he will expand his brief ruling with a more extensive order. The law would have prohibited convicted sex offenders from living or working within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.
Banned From Their Own Homes
Attorneys for the defendants argued that the law would make it impossible for the state's 10,000 registered offenders to live in any of its urban or suburban counties (See map) and would ban some from their own homes.
Attorneys for the state argued the new law was necessary to protect the welfare of the public.
That meant the house was off-limits under the thorniest restriction in a new Georgia law. It is one of the strictest sex-offender laws in the nation.
While many states and municipalities bar sex offenders from living near schools, Georgia‘s law, which takes effect July 1, prohibits them from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather — schools, churches, parks, gyms, swimming pools or one of the state‘s 150,000 school bus stops.
Lawmakers began working on the legislation last year following the arrests of two sex offenders in the slayings of two girls in neighboring Florida.
With the law about to take effect, a debate is under way over how tough is too tough.
"The reality is that the restrictions are so tough that they are going to backfire by causing people not to report and re-register with their probation officers," said Sara Totonchi, the center‘s public policy director. "As a result, the number of people who will abscond from the registry will increase. And we won‘t be able to supervise them."
And because the locations of bus stops can change throughout the school year, offenders could be forced to move over and over again, some say.
While at least 15 states also restrict how close sex offenders can live to schools or day-care centers, Georgia is the only state to explicitly bar them from living near school bus stops, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Miami Beach, Fla., essentially outlawed all sex offenders when it passed an ordinance last year banning child molesters from living within 2,500 feet of schools, school bus stops, day care centers, parks or playgrounds.
Sex offenders typically meet their victims through their jobs, volunteer groups or other social networks, not because they live in the same neighborhood, he said. He said such measures also create a false sense of security.
"You‘ve zoned out some known offenders, but there are certainly others living in your midst you don‘t know about," he said.
Keen, the author of Georgia‘s law, said crimes against children are "the worst of the worst."
"We knew there were going to be some people affected by this law, that it was going to create some inconvenience," said Keen, a Republican. "But we thought that was a small price to pay for what the overall law is intended to do."
Collins, who became a ministry director after serving three years in prison, said she feels as if she is being put on trial all over again.
"I‘m the first to tell you that we need to protect our children from violent pedophiles and predators," she said. "But I also know we can change."