Residency Restrictions for Sex Offenders

Residency restriction laws are an attempt to curb the actions of sex offenders. States have passed their own laws regarding residency restrictions. For example, Alabama passed its first residency restriction law in 1996. It prohibited offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school.

This article summarizes sex offenses and sex offender registries. It also discusses the Iowa law that shaped the current state of sex offender punishment and sentencing options.

Sex Offenses

Generally, sexual assault refers to sexual contact without the victim's consent. In some cases, the victim is incapable of consenting to sexual contact.

State and federal laws vary in terms of sex offenses. Regardless of the name given to a sexual assault, the law often severely punishes such crimes. Examples of sex-related crimes include the following:

An offender's criminal history follows them throughout their life. Some sexual offenders, including sexually violent predators, are required to provide registration information when they move into a community. Local laws also may affect where a sexual offender may live.

Sex Offender Registries

Convicted sex offenders released from confinement are recorded in sex offender registries (SOR). The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) provides minimum standards for SORs.

Sex offender registration allows law enforcement to better protect public safety. The sex offender registry allows local law enforcement agencies to keep close tabs on people convicted of sexual offenses. SORNA also notes that the fact that convicted offenders know their information is in a public register may stop them from committing later sexual crimes.

There are several registration requirements for registered sex offenders. These requirements may vary by state. Often, law enforcement photographs the offenders at the initial registration. Some states require them to return to the police department or sheriff's office on a regular basis to keep an updated photograph on file. In addition, some states set deadlines for offenders to regularly update their information.

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. Iowa's statute made it an aggravated misdemeanor for a sex offender convicted of an aggravated offense against a minor to reside within 2,000 feet of a school or childcare facility.

The law did not apply if the person established residence: before the law took effect; before there was a school or daycare center; if the offender was a minor or a ward; resided in a healthcare facility; or was serving a sentence or civil commitment.

Residency Restrictions Challenged in Federal Court

Three named sex offenders soon challenged the Iowa law in federal district court. They claimed the law was unconstitutional. 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 that in some cities, the law would limit sex offenders to small areas of residency. In small towns, a single school or child care center could mean the entire town was off-limits.

The district court ruled that the law was unconstitutional on several grounds:

  • The law was an ex post facto law, meaning it would apply to people who had been convicted before the law went into effect.
  • The law violated the plaintiffs' right to avoid self-incrimination as it required registrants to report their addresses, even those not in compliance with the law.
  • The law violated the plaintiffs' due process rights.
  • The law infringed on their fundamental rights to travel.
  • The law infringed on how the plaintiffs could conduct their family affairs.
  • Iowa did not narrowly tailor the law to serve a compelling state interest.

The government appealed the court's ruling.

Reversal of Federal Court Ruling

On April 29, 2005, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's decision. The appellate court ruled no constitutional right to "live where you want" exists.

  • The Circuit Court ruled that the right against self-incrimination was premature, as no criminal prosecution for violating the residency rule had yet occurred.
  • It found the constitutional right to travel is primarily a right to interstate travel. It determined the Iowa law was constitutional because it did not bar offenders from crossing state lines.
  • The Circuit Court dispensed with the argument regarding family affairs because the law did not limit who could live with the sex offender.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the ex post facto issue in a 2003 decision, a challenge to a similar law in Alaska. Two judges agreed that the law didn't amount to an ex post facto punishment.
  • What about due process? The Eighth Circuit ruled that the law did not deprive the plaintiffs of procedural due process because the law was not unconstitutionally vague. Most importantly, the court ruled that the plaintiffs were not entitled to individualized hearings or any opportunity to be heard concerning whether the restrictions should apply to each individual.

The plaintiffs acknowledged that Iowa enacted the law to promote the safety of children. They also recognized this was a legitimate legislative goal. Plaintiffs argued, however, that the law was irrational. They asserted there was no evidence to suggest that residency restrictions would enhance child safety.

The Circuit Court rejected the plaintiff's argument. It noted that state policymakers were entitled to employ common sense. The Court noted that "limiting the frequency of contact between sex offenders and areas where children are located is likely to reduce the risk of an offense."

The judges ruled that plaintiffs did not establish that the law's punitive effect would override the legislature's "legitimate intent to enact a nonpunitive, civil regulatory measure that protects health and safety" of the state's citizens.

The Iowa Statute After the Eighth Circuit's Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case after the Eighth Circuit's ruling. In Des Moines, officials added parks, libraries, swimming pools, and recreational trails to the list of protected zones.

By 2021, more than 30 states enacted residency restrictions. Moreover, some local governments implemented their own limits. Courts have, in general, found such laws constitutional.

Some court decisions have struck down laws more restrictive than the Iowa law. An example of this is a Wisconsin case from 2017. There, a federal court struck down a community's residency restrictions. It found the restrictions excluded sex offenders from over 90% of the neighborhoods in that municipality.

Criticism of Residency Restrictions

While laws regarding sex offender residency restrictions are currently legal, researchers at the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers concluded that such laws provide a false sense of security for community members. Furthermore, the study suggests these restrictions are counterproductive to reducing recidivism rates.

Critics of residency restrictions argue that restricting where sex offenders may live deprives them of the ability to reintegrate into society successfully. They say living away from family, friends, social venues, and workplaces deprives offenders of support and employment and prevents them from reintegrating into their community.

Learn More About Residency Restrictions for Sex Offenders From a Lawyer

What are the residency restrictions for people on the sex offender registry in your community? Have restrictions made it impossible to find housing and employment? Talk with a criminal defense attorney in your area. An experienced attorney can provide you with information regarding the following:

  • What restrictions your state's Department of Corrections places on a registered offender's residency
  • The criminal justice system and sex crimes 
  • The effect of a subsequent conviction on your criminal history

If you are accused of a sexual offense, do not delay in contacting a criminal defense attorney. If you have experienced sexual assault, contact a sex crime attorney.

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