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Law restricting where sex offenders can live is unconstitutional, L.A. judge rules [Updated]

November 4, 2010 |  8:07 am

Saying sex offenders are being forced to choose between prison and homelessness, a Los Angeles judge issued an opinion this week blocking enforcement of provisions a state law restricting how close those offenders can live from parks or schools.

Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza issued the 10-page ruling after four registered sex offenders petitioned the court, arguing that the legislation known as Jessica's Law was unconstitutional.

He said the court had received about 650 habeas corpus petitions raising similar legal issues, and that hundreds more were being prepared by the public defender's and alternate public defender's offices.

"The court is not a 'potted plant' and need not sit idly by in the face of immediate, ongoing and significant violations of parolee constitutional rights," Espinoza wrote.

Proposition 83, which is better known as Jessica's Law and was overwhelmingly passed by state voters in 2006, imposes strict residency requirements on sex offenders, including requirements forbidding them from residing within 2,000 feet of any public or private school or park where children regularly gather.

Before the law passed, those residency requirements were imposed only on offenders whose victims were children.

Civil rights attorneys have argued that provisions of the law make it impossible for some registered sex offenders to live in densely populated cities.

Nearly all of San Francisco, for example, is off-limits to sex offenders because of the number of parks and schools close to housing. Los Angeles officials also said that there are few places in the city where sex offenders can find housing that meets Jessica's Law requirements.

The California Supreme Court ruled in February that registered sex offenders could challenge residency requirements in the law if it proves impossible to avoid living near parks and schools.

State corrections officials said Wednesday that they could not comment on the specifics of Espinoza's ruling, but said they would continue to ensure residency restrictions are imposed in cases where there is a valid reason to continue enforcing them.

"There are other tools that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can and will continue to use to further public safety, including residency restrictions specific to each offender," said the agency spokesman Luis Patino.

In his opinion, Espinoza cited comments by Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck that the Jessica's Law restrictions had resulted in "a marked increase of homeless/transient registrants." The judge noted that in 2007, there were 30 homeless sex offenders on active parole in the city of Los Angeles. By September of this year, that number had jumped to 259.

[Corrected at 10:10 p.m.: A previous version of this story said there were 30 sex offenders on active parole in the city of Los Angeles in 2007. There were 30 homeless sex offenders on active parole in the city of Los Angeles in 2007.]

"Rather than protecting public safety, it appears that the sharp rise in homelessness rates in sex offenders on active parole in Los Angeles County actually undermines public safety." wrote Espinoza, who is the supervising judge of the Los Angeles County criminal courts. "The evidence presented suggests that despite lay belief, a sex offender parolee's residential proximity to a school or park where children regularly gather does not bear on the parolee's likelihood to commit a sexual offense against a child."

LAPD officials said they were reviewing the court decision and had no immediate comment on its specifics.

Last month, in a briefing for the Los Angeles Police Commission, Det. Diane Webb, who heads a unit responsible for tracking the whereabouts of sex offenders, said there are about 5,100 registered sex offenders living in the city.

Of those, about 20%, or approximately 1,020 people, are on parole for felony crimes and are prohibited by state law from living near a school or park where children gather, Webb said.

She said that some of the city's sex-offender population has come to Los Angeles from surrounding cities that have passed additional sex-offender laws that make it next to impossible for offenders to find a place to live and push them to look elsewhere, but that Los Angeles does not have any additional laws on its books, making it a feasible destination.

 -- Andrew Blankstein


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