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San Diego Sex Offender Residency Law Faces Uphill Legal Battle

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott sits at the dais, Dec. 12, 2016.

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott sits at the dais, Dec. 12, 2016.

San Diego Sex Offender Residency Law Faces Uphill Legal Battle

GUEST:

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

A lawsuit has been filed over a San Diego law restricting where registered sex offenders can live. Courts have found similar laws unconstitutional — and counterproductive to their goal of protecting children.

An attorney filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday challenging a San Diego law that restricts where registered sex offenders can live. The City Attorney's Office may now face the difficult task of fighting a legal battle it is not confident it can win.

San Diego's "Child Protection Act," passed by the City Council in 2008, bars registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of minor-oriented facilities, including arcades, schools, parks and libraries. The law has not been enforced since 2009 because of concerns over its legality.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that a similar law covering unincorporated San Diego County was unconstitutional. It found the residency restrictions increased the rate of homelessness among sex offenders, preventing them from accessing help and — counterproductively — making it more difficult for law enforcement to keep track of them.

City Attorney Mara Elliott last week urged council members to repeal the ordinance, warning them of a potentially unwinnable legal battle over an unenforceable law that is giving people "false hope."

"My concern, of course, as your city attorney is fighting lawsuits like this that we are not convinced that we could win, and ensuring that we're using the very limited resources within my office to protect San Diegans in a way that means something," Elliott told the council at its Aug. 1 meeting.

She added that the San Diego Police Department has tools outside of the ordinance to protect children from sexual abuse. She said the police department was there to explain further, but no council member invited the police department's representative to speak.

The vote to repeal the ordinance initially failed on a 4-4 split, with council members Chris Ward, Chris Cate, David Alvarez and Georgette Gomez voting against the repeal. Councilwoman Lorie Zapf was initially absent. Ward then moved to reconsider the item after Zapf arrived at the meeting, but he did not change his vote. The second vote failed 5-4, with Zapf joining those opposing the repeal.

A spokesman for Ward said he was traveling and unavailable to explain his vote. Gomez was also not immediately available for comment. Neither explained their votes during last week's meeting.

Alvarez's office sent a statement saying: "I will always vote in support of protecting children." Zapf's office sent a statement saying: "It is my job to protect San Diego's children, not to make it easier for convicted sex predators to live next door." Cate's office sent a statement saying: "I will not support a proposal that will put the safety of children and families in our neighborhoods in danger."

None of the council members acknowledged in their statements that the law they voted to uphold is not being enforced.

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Sex Offender Lawsuit

Sex Offender Lawsuit

A lawsuit filed on behalf of two registered sex offenders in San Diego challenges a city ordinance restricting where they can live.

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The lawsuit was filed Monday by Janice Bellucci, the executive director of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws. Bellucci said of the 25 other lawsuits she has filed against cities with similar residency restrictions, none had gone to trial and most have been resolved with the cities repealing their ordinances.

"Perhaps this has gotten the attention of the other City Council members, and there is in fact somebody who would be willing to vote in support" of repealing the law, she said. "This is a case that could be settled outside of court, and we're certainly open to that possibility."

Bellucci added that some crimes that can land people on sex offender registries are "ridiculous," pointing to cases of teenagers being charged with distributing child pornography because they sent nude selfies to their significant others.

If Bellucci's suit against San Diego goes to trial and the city loses, taxpayers will likely have to pay her attorney fees and expenses.

California is one of only four states that requires all sex offenders to remain on the registry for their entire lives. The state board tasked with managing the registry has said it is overburdened with keeping track of thousands of offenders with a low risk of recidivism.

A bill in the state legislature would create a tiered system allowing such low-risk offenders to be removed from the registry after 10 or 20 years. Offenders with a high risk of recidivism would remain on the registry for life.

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Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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