Sex offender ordinances considered across the stateby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Several Minnesota communities are considering severely restricting where sex offenders can live. Many are looking to Taylors Falls, which already has an ordinance in place. City officials say they're trying to protect children. But attorneys and law enforcement officials say they're worried such ordinances may cause more harm than good.
Albert Lea, Minn. — Taylors Falls is a tourist town nestled along the St. Croix River, just northeast of the Twin Cities. People come here to enjoy the beautiful river gorge and the picturesque buildings.
But recently some people have been coming for more than the scenery. They've been taking a look at Mayor Mike Buchite's city ordinance that limits where sex offenders can live in the town.
The ordinance restricts certain offenders from staying -- even overnight -- within 2,000 feet of any place children gather. That's about one-third of a mile.
Buchite leans over a map of the city.
"We had our city engineer identify areas on the map that were either playgrounds, a school, a church, a bus stop," he says, pointing to different locations on the map. "And then from there he took our distances from our ordinance and he drew circles around those areas. And you can tell these are the open spaces where an individual is not prohibited from living."
Buchite admits the circles cover almost the entire community.
"It's a big portion of the city," he says.
Much of the area left over has no housing.
The ordinance applies to Level Three sex offenders, who are believed to pose the greatest risk for re-offending. It also applies to anyone who has committed a sex offense against a juvenile.
Mayor Buchite says this is simply to protect children. If any Level Three offender moved to his city, he'd have a way to deal with them.
He disagrees with people who say the ordinance is a violation of constitutional rights.
"There are cities that have smoking bans within so many feet of a park. You're talking about seat belt laws, you're talking about child restraints," Buchite says. "Any time you have broken the law, there is some type of punishment that goes along with the crime."
Communities across the country are moving ahead with similar laws and ordinances. California will have a measure on its November ballot.
The movement to restrict where sex offenders can live began in Iowa. In 2002, Iowa's Legislature passed a law that prohibited all people convicted of a sex crime from living near a school, daycare center or park. Many municipalities further tightened those restrictions.
Offenders filed a class action lawsuit, claiming the law infringed upon their rights to interstate travel and privacy. They also said the restriction was tantamount to banishment, because available housing was either too expensive or 50 miles away.
The U.S. District Court sided with the offenders, but the appelate court reversed the decision. The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to take up the case.
The Iowa law went into effect in September 2005, and state officials say sex offenders are leaving the state.
Theodore Paulson doesn't care where they live, so long as it's not near his two children.
"Molesting a child, that's bad," Paulson says. "That will stay with the child forever. It's not like it goes away after a couple years."
Paulson prompted Albert Lea to create a committee to write a sex offender ordinance. He's now a member of that committee. He says kids don't get a second chance, so why should child molesters?
Paulson sits among his books on construction and wiring at the Riverland Community College library. He moved to Albert Lea from Waseca to attend college. The move was also for his kids. He says they have more to do here.
He admits, though, he's always concerned about sexual predators. Four people in his family were molested. His fears were confirmed at an Albert Lea City Council meeting earlier this year.
"And another member of the public brought it up at a council meeting," he says. "There were two of them living a block and a half away from where my son goes to school."
Paulson verified the information through a Web site called Family Watchdog. The Web site maps the listed residences of registered sex offenders from states like Iowa and Wisconsin.
Those states publish information about all registered offenders online. That includes people convicted of public nudity or indecent exposure ,as well as kidnapping and rape. Thousands of people are listed. Officials admit often the information is incomplete and inaccurate.
Minnesota only distributes information about Level Three sex offenders. That's about 100 people, most of whom are locked up indefinitely.
But Paulson is worried about Minnesota offenders he doesn't know about, and those from Iowa. The state border is minutes away, and five Iowa offenders have legally moved to Albert Lea.
"If we don't know who they are, how can we protect our families from the ones that are already convicted of molesting a child?" Pauslon asks. "And since the state won't tell us who they are or where they live, that's why I ask the cities to step in and prevent them from living near places where children congregate."
Albert Lea City Attorney Steve Schwab says he will draft whatever the sex offender committee wants to implement. The ordinance will likely mirror what's in effect in Taylors Falls.
Schwab points out that Taylors Falls doesn't prevent an offender from going to a school or park. And he says this will affect people convicted of crimes like statutory rape.
He's also concerned the ordinance violates an offender's constitutional rights.
"When you commit a felony you give up some of your rights. Does it mean you give up all of your rights, including your right to reside? That's the issue," Schwab says. "How restrictive can the city be? Or what if we passed it statewide? Does that mean Level Threes and individuals who committed crimes against juveniles could not live in the state of Minnesota? That's an interesting legal question. Basically we'd be closing our borders."
Albert Lea Police Detective Frank Kohl is in charge of all criminal sexual conduct cases. He also monitors all people in the city on the state's predatory offender list. He says laws like this are motivated by fear.
Kohl has worked in the field for more than 20 years, and says he can't think of one occasion where a sex offender re-offended.
National and state figures indicate 90 percent of sex offenses each year are committed by first-time offenders. And Kohl says these laws ignore another fact of sex abuse.
"Most of the cases I'm involved in are all victims that are familiar with their abuser or the perpetrator," Kohl says. "They are all familiar. Lot are family members. Some are just friends."
Kohl worries these laws will make it less likely that sex offenses will be reported, because people who find a family member sexually abusing a relative do sometimes want to keep the family together.
Kohl says pushing sex offenders into rural areas will make it harder to keep track of them and may push some of them underground. He says that will make Albert Lea more dangerous rather than less.
Recently faced with similar arguments, the Austin City Council voted down an ordinance limiting where sex offenders could live.
Austin Councilmember Pete Christopherson was concerned initially about people's freedoms. But what really convinced him to vote against the ordinance was Minnesota's existing sex offender monitoring. And he says the law seemed impossible to enforce.
"They've always been in Austin ... they're going to be in Austin. Just educate yourself to know what to look for and educate the kids," Christopherson says.
To that end, Austin will have the police chief hold meetings with students and teachers on avoiding sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, the Albert Lea committee continues its deliberations. It will receive a draft of the proposed ordinance May 10.
- All Things Considered, 04/24/2006, 5:49 p.m.