Zoning Laws That Bar Pedophiles Raise Concerns
Dith Pran/The New York Times
In Franklin Township, N.J., recreation areas like Malaga Lake Park are off limits to convicted pedophiles. In some cities, many such zones overlap.
By LAURA MANSNERUS
Published: November 27, 2006, New York Times
FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, N.J., Nov. 21 — The man identified in court documents as A. B. does not talk to his neighbors or tarry at the convenience store. Seventy-seven years old, soft-spoken and sometimes confused, he hardly ever leaves the little ranch house he bought in 1969. “People know what’s what with me,” he said.
What’s what with A. B. is that he moved back here last year after serving seven years in prison for sexually molesting two grandchildren and another youngster. And because his home is in a “child safety zone” drawn by the township, he may be forced to leave it.
But the public defender’s office in New Jersey, a state government agency, filed suit against the township on his behalf last month, claiming that the ordinance not only violates his right to due process, but also conflicts with a state law requiring that parole officers decide where registered sex offenders live. It is the first such case the agency has taken up, and could herald a curb on the rapidly proliferating local ordinances that threaten to push pedophiles to the fringes of civilization.
Such regulations — more than 100 have been enacted in New Jersey municipalities — are popular around the nation. More than 20 states have broad laws keeping sex offenders from schools, churches, playgrounds and the like. This month 70 percent of California voters approved expanding statewide restrictions to include more sex offenders, and authorized towns to designate even stricter limits.
On Long Island, the East Rockaway Village Board voted on Nov. 13 to add areas in which sex offenders are barred: Now they cannot live within 1,000 feet of day care centers, community centers, places of worship, libraries and recreational facilities. And the Village of Babylon announced Tuesday that it had evicted seven offenders who were violating its residency restrictions.
The steady march of more and more restrictive regulations, though, is sending sex offenders into rural territory, which in New Jersey and on Long Island is scarce — or worse, into vagrancy, law enforcement officials say. Now these officials fear that uprooting sex offenders makes them less stable and harder to track.
“It certainly makes our job difficult,” said Thomas James, New Jersey’s director of parole, explaining that because his officers often have to find housing and social services for offenders, their banishment by local governments is “an ever-increasing problem.”
But Michael DiGiorgio, chief of police here in Franklin Township, said, “We’re not telling any of these individuals they can’t live in Franklin Township; they just can’t live where the children are.”
“That’s the whole purpose of the ordinance,” he added. “To protect children.”
A. B.’s name is on the state’s registry — “I’m broadcast on the Internet,” he said — but he was identified by randomly chosen initials in court papers, and granted anonymity for this article, so as not to expose his victims. His lawsuit, filed in State Superior Court in Gloucester County, is one of a handful filed across New Jersey in recent months to overturn the local rules, part of a national wave of litigation that is beginning to follow the multiplying new laws.
An Ohio court ruled in October that the state’s buffer-zone law could not be enforced against offenders who lived in such zones before it took effect. Citing several constitutional concerns, a federal judge in California issued a temporary restraining order barring enforcement of the residency restrictions set forth in the state’s recent ballot proposition.
In Georgia, plaintiffs in a class-action suit include several offenders who would seem to pose little further threat: an elderly man with Alzheimer’s disease and another living in a hospice, along with a woman whose long-ago conviction was for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old boy when she was 17.
“We’ve represented people on death row, we’ve represented what I thought were some pretty unpopular people,” said Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is handling the Georgia case. “I didn’t know what unpopular was until we started representing sex offenders.”
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