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Challenge to Indiscriminate Ga. Sex Offender Law Validated*

by Jessica Azulay

*A correction was appended to this news report after initial publication.

July 3, 2006 – A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order Friday against a Georgia law that would have made it nearly impossible for registered sex offenders to find housing in the state’s urban areas.

The law, which bad been slated to go into affect July 1, prohibits people registered as sex offenders of any kind from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.

The Southern Center for Human Rights and several people targeted by the law are arguing in a class-action lawsuit that it is unconstitutional because it does not distinguish between people who are violent sexual predators and those who are in the registry for having consensual sex with under-age peers.

One of the named plaintiffs is in the registry merely for failing to stop her under-age daughter from having sex with another teen.

On Friday, Judge Clarence Cooper issued a temporary restraining order, forbidding state agents from enforcing the law until the case is decided in court. The ruling widened an earlier decision by Cooper which had enjoined the state from enforcing the law against the nine named plaintiffs in the case. In applying the injunction to all registered sex offenders, Cooper validated plaintiffs’ request for their case to be considered a class-action suit.

In 2003, Georgia passed a law prohibiting individuals required to register as sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, childcare facilities, public and private parks, recreation facilities, playgrounds, skating rinks, neighborhood centers, gymnasiums, and similar facilities.

One of the named plaintiffs is in the registry merely for failing to stop her under-age daughter from having sex with another teen.

In April of this year, Governor Sonny Perdue signed a law that added school bus stops to the list of places 1,000 feet from which registered sex offenders were prohibited to live. The revised law also makes it illegal for people so-designated to work within 1,000 feet of a church, childcare facility or school.

Wendy Whitaker, 26, is a plaintiff in the case. According to the complaint filed on her and the others’ behalf, Whitaker plead guilty to a "sodomy" charge when she was 17 years old, after being caught engaging in consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old boy. She was required to register as a sex offender as part of her sentence, and was forced to move in with family members when the 2003 law went into affect because the home she owned was within 1,000 feet of a church.

Another plaintiff, Janet Allison, is registered as a sex offender, according to the complaint, because she was convicted in 2002 of being party to a crime of statutory rape and party to a crime of child molestation. The charges stemmed from her teenage daughter’s pregnancy after her daughter had consensual sex with another teen.

The plaintiffs argue that the law "does not provide for individualized justice" because it "provides no process to distinguish between people on the registry who are dangerous to children and those who are not."

The plaintiffs argue that the law “does not provide for individualized justice.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue in the complaint that the law "contains no ‘safety valve’ provision to permit persons" such as the plaintiffs "to appeal to a court to determine whether the residency restrictions are appropriate for them." They also insist that, "by imposing punishment without an individualized showing of dangerousness or an individual opportunity to obtain an exception to the law, the Act deprives plaintiffs of their property and livelihood without due process."

If the new law goes into affect, both Whitaker and Allison will be forced to move. Allison has already been informed by county sheriffs that she must move, and, according to the complaint, she has unsuccessfully searched in five counties for an affordable home that would allow her to comply with the new law.

Other plaintiffs in the case said they, too, had searched for new housing that would comply with the law, to no avail.

In promoting the law, State House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R) said he thought it would convince sex offenders to leave Georgia.

In an interview with the LA Times, Keen acknowledged the law would be "an inconvenience" for "some folks" who would have to move. "But," he said, "if you weigh that argument against the overall impact, which is the safety of children, most folks would agree this is a good thing."

Many sex offenders – those who are still on probation or parole – cannot legally leave the state, however, until they go through the lengthy process of applying to transfer supervision to another state.

"The act does not force people out of the state," wrote the lawyers for the plaintiffs. "It forces them onto the street."


Major Change:

The headline of this article originally appeared with the abbreviation Fla. (Florida) instead of Ga. (Georgia). This was simply an editor's error -- the story does not refer to Florida in any way.

 | Change Posted July 3, 2006 at 12:30 PM EST

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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This News Report originally appeared in the July 3, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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