Sex offender activists increasingly turn to federal courts for relief

By MAURICE CHAMMAH . . . Mary Sue Molnar estimates that she gets at least five calls a week from Texans on the sex offender registry who can’t find a place to live. Numerous towns around the state have passed ordinances prohibiting those on the list from residing within a certain distance — anywhere from 500 to 3,500 feet — of a school, park, daycare facility or playground. In some towns, that’s almost everywhere. “We’ve got people living in extended-stay motels,” says Molnar, who runs the sex-offender-rights group Texas Voices for Reason and Justice. “We’re in a crisis mode.”

Molnar and her allies have considered lobbying the Legislature to ban these ordinances, but they’ve found lawmakers unreceptive in the past to any bill perceived to benefit sex offenders. So she decided to go to court.

Molnar enlisted a small army of parents and siblings of sex offenders to compile a list of towns with such ordinances, and assembled research showing that the rules can actually make the public less safe. She enlisted Denton lawyer Richard Gladden. He was already representing Taylor Rice, who as a 20 year-old had sex with a 14 year-old he met online and now, after his conviction for sexual assault, was legally barred from living with his parents because their house was too close to a high school’s baseball field. Gladden had found a 2007 opinion by then-attorney general (now governor) Greg Abbott saying that towns with fewer than 5,000 residents — which fall into a particular legal category in Texas — are not authorized by the state to enact such restrictions on their own.

Gladden sent letters threatening lawsuits to 46 city councils. Within two months, half of them had repealed their ordinances. Gladden and Molnar are currently suing 11 of the remaining towns.

Restrictions on where registered sex offenders can work, live, and visit vary widely from state to state and city to city. Over the last few years, Molnar and her counterparts in other states have come to the same conclusion: Politicians aren’t going to help them. “Who wants to risk being called a pedophile-lover?” says Robin van der Wall, a North Carolina registrant on the board of the national group Reform Sex Offender Laws.

So the activists have taken the route favored by other politically unpopular groups and turned to the legal system, where they are more likely to encounter judges insulated from electoral concerns. Their legal claims vary, but in numerous cases, reformers have argued that these restrictions associated with registration add up to a sort of second sentence, and that they are defined in a vague way that makes them difficult to abide by. In some cases, the plaintiffs have argued that individual towns have enacted restrictions above and beyond what states allow them to impose. (Please continue reading at The Marshall Project)

This article was published in collaboration with The Texas Observer.

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