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Hall sex offenders can live where they choose

Restrictions are no longer enforced after court ruling

POSTED: December 11, 2007 7:19 a.m.

More than 220 registered sex offenders in Hall County who, up until last week, were prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, churches and other places where children gather now can live wherever they want.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the case of a Clayton County sex offender means the toughest sex offender restrictions in the nation have been struck down as unconstitutional.

"Law enforcement can get back to protecting the public rather than being surveyors and measuring 1,000-foot distances," said Sara Totonchi, a spokeswoman for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represented several registered sex offenders in unrelated federal litigation.

Sheriff Steve Cronic confirmed Tuesday that after conferring this week with the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association and the office of Attorney General Thurbert Baker, his deputies no longer will enforce where a sex offender lives. Sex offenders still must register their residences with law enforcement each year, regardless of whether they move. The information is listed on a public Web site.

Cronic said he was disappointed that the court struck down provisions of the law he felt were valid.

"From a sheriff’s standpoint, we’re going to do what the law requires us to do," Cronic said. "From a parent’s standpoint, you’re disappointed."

In its opinion, the state Supreme Court wrote that Georgia’s sex offender registry requirements had become too onerous.

"It is apparent that there is no place in Georgia where a registered sex offender can live without being continually at risk of being rejected," Justice Carol Hunstein wrote for the court.

The case was brought by a registered sex offender in Hampton who saw two day care centers built within 1,000 feet of his home, forcing him to move. The high court found that the residency restrictions interfered with the plaintiff’s property rights.

"This was a strongly worded ruling saying that it’s unlawful to take people’s property from them," Totonchi said.

Cronic argued that the property rights rationale doesn’t fit every sex offender case.

"If you move into an apartment that’s beside a day care center, I don’t know how that relates to seizing your property," he said.

Cronic acknowledged the ruling would mean a decreased workload for his sex offender unit, which had two investigators working full time to check where sex offender lived, often with the help of maps and global positioning systems.

"From an operational standpoint, it was really difficult to enforce," Cronic said. "It has been a tremendous drain our resources."

Larry Duttweiler, a senior attorney with the office of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender, has represented more than a dozen sex offenders who were arrested for living too close to restricted areas in Hall County. Asked if he felt those cases still pending would be dismissed, Duttweiler said, "They’re going to have to be, if the law’s declared unconstitutional."

Duttweiler believes the law was intended to make sex offenders move out of the state, and the high court’s decision should improve stability for people who, in some cases, were forced to move many times.

"If you want these people to have real jobs and contribute to society, why bounce them all over the place?" Duttweiler said. "They say, ‘We want you to go to church and be a good person, but at night don’t lay your head down within 1,000 feet of a church.’"

Duttweiler also conceded, "Sex offenders aren’t going to get any sympathy, and that’s just the way it is."

Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, said the legislature would take another crack at the law in the upcoming session. Mills made a distinction between dangerous sexual predators and sex offenders.

There are only 39 people of the more than 10,000 registered sex offenders in Georgia who are categorized as "sexual predators." They are considered people who are at risk of committing another sexually violent offense due to a mental abnormality or personality disorder.

Sexual predators are under tougher restrictions than other sex offenders and wear electronic ankle monitors. Two of the 39 live in Gainesville: Adrian M. Harper, 26, of 7172 Ironwood Drive, and Michael Eugene Cromer, 41, of 2964-A Gillsville Highway, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Web site.

"For those who are truly sexual predators, I don’t think the penalty can be tough enough," Mills said. "However, I think the law as currently written may have cast the net too broad. These judges have accurately pointed out areas that need more discussion and more debate."

Critics of the law have noted that rapists and child molesters are essentially treated the same as someone who had consensual sex with an underage person two years younger.

"We believe that residency restrictions can be effective when imposed on a case-by-case basis by judges, rather than relying so heavily on this one-size-fits-all solution," Totonchi said.

Mills agrees.

"I think in this particular area, judges need some leeway to apply discernment to different situations," Mills said. "A cookie-cutter approach to this crime does not fairly mete out justice with wisdom."

"Clearly, I am for the toughest penalty we can come up with on sexual predators," Mills said. "However, we also have an obligation to uphold the constitution."

Said Cronic, "My hope is the legislature will go back and craft something that will withstand judicial review."



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