Federal judge rules sex offender Rhode Island residency law is unconstitutional
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A federal court ruled March 16, 2023 an unconstitutional a state law that makes it a crime for certain sex offenders to reside within 1,000 feet of a school, finding that the statute would require individuals subject to it to guess whether they were in compliance with it, and potentially face a criminal trial if they guessed wrong.
In a 25-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell, Jr. held that since “neither an ordinary person nor law enforcement could understand the statutory language that attempts to define the boundaries of residences and schools,” the residency prohibition is unconstitutionally void for vagueness. ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys challenged the statute when it was first enacted in 2015, and it has been subject to a preliminary injunction barring its enforcement since then.
The law provides for measuring the 1,000 foot distance “from the nearest boundary line of the real property supporting the residence of the person to the nearest boundary line of the real property that supports or upon which there exists a school.” ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Lynette Labinger and John MacDonald noted the complete lack of clarity as to what property “supporting” a school was applicable in measuring the distance — what about spaces like playing fields, playgrounds, or parking lots? In fact, the court noted, the state has given differing interpretations of what that language means over the years, and most recently argued that it applies to any real property — even if not contiguous to the school — if it is “typically used by students for school purposes,” and that those determinations needed to be made on a case-by-case basis. In pointing out the problem with this approach, the court noted:
“After all, if the State’s process involved law enforcement, school officials, and attorneys collaborating to make precise individualized determinations on these boundaries, how could an ordinary person ever be expected to faithfully follow this process, let alone come to the same conclusion about where these boundaries lie? Not to mention that these difficulties facilitate arbitrary and inconsistent enforcement.”
Both nationally and locally, correctional administrators‚ experts involved in the treatment of sex offenders, victims’ rights groups, and advocates for the homeless have opposed sex offender residency laws as being ineffective, counter-productive, and potentially more, rather than less, harmful to public safety. The law applies to all Level 3 sex offenders, even if their crime was committed against an adult, and even though the overwhelming majority of sex offenses are committed against people the offender knows, not strangers.
At the time the suit was filed, various housing rights advocates noted that by pushing individuals out of their homes and limiting where they can live, the law would encourage homelessness, making it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor them and for offenders to reintegrate themselves into the community. By disrupting vital rehabilitative services, the groups argued, the law increased, rather than decreased, risks to public safety. The suit was filed just days before dozens of people had been ordered to move from their then-current residences.
Although the ACLU lawsuit raised numerous legal challenges to the law — including that it violates due process, retroactively punishes those who have already completed their sentences, and interferes with “liberty and privacy interests while bearing no rational relationship to a legitimate purpose” — the parties agreed to have the court first rule on the “vagueness” challenge to see if that might dispose of the case.
ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Labinger said today: “As we demonstrated in our court filings, even the State, in its efforts to justify the law, was unable to articulate a single coherent or objective standard which people trying to stay out of trouble and law enforcement could follow. The Court’s decision is important to our clients and the class they represent, because it means that they will not be subject to onerous and unknowable requirements as to where they can and cannot live under fear of felony prosecution. At the same time, registered sex offenders still face and are subject to a host of requirements and review to stay on the right side of the law.”
One thought on “Federal judge rules sex offender Rhode Island residency law is unconstitutional”
This is very encouraging. I am hoping that this standard will be used to dispute similar laws in other states, such as North Carolina, where I work with sex offenders. One more step in the right direction.