Crime - Sacto 911

California courts strike down local sex-offender ordinances

The California Supreme Court has left intact a lower-court ruling that invalidates local ordinances aimed at restricting the movements of registered sex offenders in dozens of cities statewide.

The court’s decision Wednesday not to hear a case involving a Southern California sex offender means city and county ordinances banning such offenders from public parks and other public areas no longer may be enforced, attorneys say. Instead, a state law governing where sex offenders on parole may live now stands as the main restriction.

“If I read the tea leaves correctly, it’s probably dead everywhere in California,” Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff to Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Thursday.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office had led the effort to tighten restrictions on sex offenders and advised communities in that area on how to enact such ordinances.

“We still believe that we were right on the law and we respectfully disagree,” Schroeder said. “We don’t regret the choices that we made in trying to keep sex offenders out of parks and keep children safe.”

The state Supreme Court’s action stemmed in part from an Orange County case in which a registered sex offender in Irvine went to a tennis court at a public park in violation of a local ordinance.

The offender pleaded guilty, but a public defender appealed the case and won a ruling that state law trumps such local ordinances, Schroeder said. Her office appealed that to the 4th District Court of Appeal, which agreed with the appellate decision, so the Orange County District Attorney’s Office asked the state Supreme Court to hear the matter.

That court declined to do so Wednesday. It also declined to hear a second, similar case involving an offender who was cited after going to a picnic at a county park.

The move effectively invalidates such local ordinances, Schroeder said, and leaves Jessica’s Law, passed by voters in 2006, as the main enforcement tool over paroled sex offenders. That measure, which also has faced court challenges, prevents sex offenders on parole from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks.

Santa Maria attorney Janice Bellucci, president of a group called “California Reform Sex Offender Laws,” said the Supreme Court’s move is a “major victory” for efforts to provide more rights for individuals who must register on California’s Megan’s Law list of people with sex offenses in their pasts.

“It means that our people on the registry – and we have over 105,000 now – can now go to public and private places that they could not go to before,” she said.

Bellucci has been waging a legal battle against such ordinances throughout the state and last month filed suit in U.S. District Court in Sacramento seeking to overturn a South Lake Tahoe measure.

The South Lake Tahoe ordinance prohibits sex offenders from being in or within 300 feet of public or private schools, parks, video arcades, swimming pools or other areas where children might congregate. The ordinance allows for single trips traveling past such spots.

Bellucci said 70 cities and five counties in California have enacted such measures, and she has used a client, Frank Lindsay of San Luis Obispo, a registered sex offender, as the face of her lawsuits against such ordinances.

A previous suit against El Dorado County led to a countywide ordinance being rescinded.

The ordinances have became popular statewide in recent years in light of high-profile cases involving sex offenders.

In El Dorado County, for instance, such restrictions were put in place in the wake of the notorious case of Phillip Garrido, who abducted 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard from a South Lake Tahoe street in 1991 and held her as a sex slave and hostage for 18 years.

Garrido was arrested in August 2009 and jailed in Placerville until his guilty plea in 2011 resulted in a 431 years-to-life sentence.

Cases like his and others in California resulted in a wave of new ordinances that severely restricted where registered sex offenders could go, even if they were years removed from being on parole or probation.

Bellucci said she views the matter as a “civil rights issue” that ultimately should be addressed by legislators to differentiate between people who made a mistake in their past – such as urinating in public or a young adult having consensual sex with a 17-year-old girlfriend, for example – from predators such as Garrido.

Lindsay’s lawsuit against the South Lake Tahoe ordinance was filed March 31 and stated that he is a “law-abiding citizen in good standing within his community.” The Megan’s Law registry lists the 61-year-old plumber as having a 1979 conviction for lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14.

Lindsay has written a book about his life as a registered sex offender. Bellucci said she would not discuss his past.

But Lindsay’s lawsuit said the restrictions could stop a sex offender from visiting doctor’s offices, hospitals or even businesses they might own that are adjacent to places barred to offenders.

South Lake Tahoe City Attorney Thomas Watson said the ordinance is not currently being enforced because of the legal challenges and that the city has been in talks with Bellucci. The action by the state Supreme Court could mean the council may have to rescind the ordinance, and the topic will be addressed at the next council meeting, he said.

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said Thursday that the Legislature has failed to address the need for balanced restrictions, something that may lead to new initiative drives.

“This is more than anything else due to the Legislature’s inability to craft appropriate legislation to control the behavior and conduct of sex offenders that are out,” Pierson said.

He added that the county had crafted policies he thought were appropriate and similar to those in Orange County, allowing an offender to get written permission from the sheriff to be in certain public places around children.

“I think there’s this misimpression that we want to ban sex offenders from going anywhere and doing anything,” Pierson said. “What we’re attempting to do is deal with the unusual situations where they’re predatory. If they go to an ice skating rink because they want to look at the young children, that’s who we’re trying to prevent from being in that kind of situation.”

Conversely, Pierson said, there is no intent to bar registered sex offenders from being able to drop off their own child at school.

“It’s trying to balance the competing rights here in an appropriate way that safeguards the children,” Pierson said.

Any further efforts to change sex offender laws now must be made by legislators, Schroeder said, adding that her office still feels such local limits are appropriate.

“We felt like, for what it’s worth, I think it’s good for sex offenders not to be around children,” she said.