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San Diego Settles Suit On Sex Offender Residency Law

The outside of the Edward J. Schwartz federal courthouse in downtown San Dieg...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: The outside of the Edward J. Schwartz federal courthouse in downtown San Diego is shown in this photo, Oct. 18, 2006.

The city of San Diego has settled a lawsuit challenging a city law that limits where convicted sex offenders can live, agreeing to enforce the law only against those who are on parole.

The 2008 ordinance bans all registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, park or other facility that caters to children. The city has never enforced the law, however, because of concerns over its constitutionality.

In 2015, the California Supreme Court overturned a nearly identical law covering unincorporated San Diego County. The court found such residency restrictions are unconstitutional when applied to all sex offenders regardless of an individual's circumstances, such as the severity of the crime or how much time had passed since their conviction.

Then, in 2017, City Attorney Mara Elliott asked the City Council to repeal the ordinance, noting it had never been enforced and would not likely withstand a legal challenge. But council voted 5-4 against the repeal, which prompted the Sacramento-based Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws to file suit on behalf of anonymous sex offender plaintiffs.

RELATED: Councilman Wants To Rewrite San Diego Sex Offender Law

The plaintiffs claimed the ordinance was preempted by state law, and that it violated the U.S. Constitution's equal protection and due process clauses. In November, a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs' on the preemption claim.

The settlement, which was reached last month, limits the city's ability to enforce the law to registered sex offenders currently on parole. That covers about 15% of registrants in San Diego County, according to the San Diego SAFE Task Force, a regional law enforcement team that monitors the sex offender registry.

Chris Morris, the private attorney hired to represent the city in the case, said the settlement leaves the ordinance on the books and therefore needed approval only from the mayor's office and not City Council members.

"It gives the city that additional law enforcement tool, and balances the right of sex registrants ... to live within the city," he said.

The settlement also requires the city to pay the plaintiffs' attorney's fees, which totalled $49,999 — just under the $50,000 limit that would have required approval from the City Council. The city has also paid more than $72,600 for Morris' representation, which put the total cost of the lawsuit to taxpayers at more than $122,600.

RELATED: Which City Council Member Changed Their Vote On Sex Offender Law?

Janice Belucci, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said the settlement also allows for future legal action if the city fails to comply.

"We reached a compromise," she said. "That’s how these things go."

California is one of very few states that requires lifetime registration for all sex offenders. That system will begin to change next year, however, when sex offenders will be divided into tiers based on their risk of recidivism. Lower-risk offenders can petition a judge for removal from the registry after a certain time period.

The California Sex Offender Management Board has long recommended the change, saying the registry is overloaded with low-risk offenders and that law enforcement should focus its limited resources on monitoring the most dangerous offenders.

Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.


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Photo of Andrew Bowen

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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