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Residency Restrictions for Sex Offenders

Residency restriction laws are a fairly new method some jurisdictions are using in an attempt to curb the actions of sex offenders. Alabama passed the first residency restriction law in 1996 as part of the state's Community Notification Act. It prohibited child molesters from living within 1,000 feet of a school. By January 2006, approximately 14 states had enacted residency restrictions. Moreover, some local governments have implemented their own residency restrictions.

While this controversial residency law has raised questions of fairness and constitutionality, it's currently legal and valid. Studies have concluded that residency restrictions for sex offenders are ineffective, including research by the Minnesota chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

Below you will find detailed information about residency restrictions for sex offenders, including an in-depth look at an Iowa law that has shaped the current state of sex offender punishment and sentencing options.

History of the Iowa Residency Restriction Law

Critics and supporters of residency restriction laws have watched Iowa's law with interest since its passage in 2002. The Iowa law applies to a "person who has committed a criminal offense against a minor, or an aggravated offense, sexually violent offense, or other relevant offense that involved a minor." According to the law, "A person shall not reside within two thousand feet of the real property comprising a public or nonpublic elementary or secondary school or a child care facility."

The law doesn't apply in certain circumstances, including where the "person has established a residence prior to July 1, 2002, or a school or child care facility is newly located on or after July 1, 2002," or where the person is a minor or a ward under a guardianship. It is an aggravated misdemeanor to reside within 2,000 feet of a school or child care facility.

Residency Restrictions Challenged in Federal Court

The Iowa law took effect on July 1, 2002, but was almost immediately challenged in federal district court by three named sex offenders who claimed the law was unconstitutional on its face. The case was certified as a class action on behalf of other sex offenders to whom the law would apply. At trial, the plaintiffs presented evidence regarding the scope of the law.

In many cities, the law would effectively limit sex offenders to small areas of residency. In small towns, a single school or child care center could mean that the entire town was off limits. Expert witnesses on both sides testified to their beliefs in the expected efficacy of the law. The district court enjoined enforcement of the law, and ruled that it was unconstitutional on several grounds, including:

  • The law was unconstitutional because it was an ex post facto law for anyone convicted before July 1, 2002;
  • It violated plaintiffs' rights to avoid self-incrimination, because registrants would be required to report their addresses, even when the addresses were not in compliance with the law;
  • It violated plaintiffs' procedural due process rights;
  • It infringed on fundamental rights to travel and decide how to conduct their family affairs; and
  • It was not tailored narrowly enough to serve a compelling state interest.

Reversal of Federal Court Ruling

In a ruling dated April 29, 2005, three judges from the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously voted to reverse the district court's decision. The appellate court dispensed with each ground relied upon by the district court, ruling that there exists no constitutional right to "live where you want." Therefore, the state only needed to show that the statute rationally advanced some legitimate governmental purpose. Plaintiffs acknowledged that the law was enacted to promote the safety of children, and that this was a legitimate legislative goal.

They argued, however, that the law is irrational because there's no scientific evidence to support the conclusion that residency restrictions will enhance the safety of children. The court rejected this argument as well, noting that state policymakers are entitled to employ "common sense" when making a determination that "limiting the frequency of contact between sex offenders and areas where children are located is likely to reduce the risk of an offense."

Two judges agreed that the law didn't amount to an ex post facto punishment. They ruled that plaintiffs didn't establish by "clearest proof" that the law's punitive effect overrides the legislature's "legitimate intent to enact a nonpunitive, civil regulatory measure that protects health and safety" of the state's citizens.

Iowa After the Eighth Circuit Court Decision

Municipalities and counties have enacted their own versions of residency restrictions for sex offenders. For example, in Des Moines, Iowa's largest city, officials added parks, libraries, swimming pools, and recreational trails to the list of protected buffer zones.

A report in the Des Moines Register on January 22, 2006, reported that since the state's residency law took effect, more sex offenders are eluding tracking by authorities. The paper reported that 298 sex offenders were unaccounted for in January 2006, compared to 142 on June 1, 2005. Critics charge that the law has forced some sex offenders to become homeless; others may lie and say that they are homeless to hide the fact that they're not complying with the law. Iowa has approximately 6,000 registered sex offenders.

Learn More About Residency Restrictions for Sex Offenders from a Lawyer

It can be quite isolating to be branded as a sex offender by the criminal justice system, and you may not know where to turn for answers. For instance, what are the residency restrictions for people on the sex offender registry in your state? To learn more about residency restrictions for sex offenders, or for legal help if you've been charged with a sex crime, you should contact a criminal defense attorney in your area.

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