When the Georgia Supreme Court changed one word this week in a recent ruling on residency restrictions for registered sex offenders, it meant that most won't be able to live wherever they want after all, officials say.
Meanwhile, a legal advocacy group maintains that the state attorney general's interpretation of the ruling makes a complex law even more confusing.
A Nov. 21 ruling by the high court was interpreted to mean that it had struck down the provisions that prohibit registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, church, playground or other places where children congregate. The court cited individual property rights as a basis for the decision, saying the government was effectively taking a person's property by dictating where he or she could or could not live.
"We find that (the law) is unconstitutional because it permits the regulatory taking of appellant's property without just and adequate compensation," the court wrote.
On Thursday, the court issued a substitute opinion with the word "because" replaced by the phrase "to the extent that."
Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office interprets the ruling to mean that sex offenders who don't own their own homes are still bound by the old residency restrictions.
"After the attorney general moved to reconsider its (Nov. 21) decision, the Georgia Supreme Court subsequently narrowed its original ruling to now only apply to property owners who are registered sex offenders," said Russ Willard, a spokesman for Baker's office.
Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic made a similar argument when the court's opinion was issued last month, saying sex offenders who rented their homes were not having their property taken if they were forced to move when a church or school was built next door.
Cronic believes the court's new ruling will likely restore the 1,000-foot rule to the residency restrictions, except for a handful of the county's 225 registered sex offenders who own their own homes. "Home ownership is low among the sex offenders in Hall County," Cronic said.
Cronic said his office is still waiting on official word from the attorney general and Georgia Sheriffs Association before resuming its enforcement of the 1,000-foot rule.
The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, however, says renters have rights, too.
"The courts have repeatedly held that renters have property rights that are protected," said Sara Totonchi, a spokesperson for the center. "The attorney general's interpretation of this ruling has made a difficult law 10 times more convoluted."
Totonchi noted that the attorney general's office as recently as Nov. 26 declared the restrictions unconstitutional in a letter to the state's 159 sheriffs. "To do a 180 like this really puts the sheriffs in an unrealistic and chaotic place in trying to enforce this law and do their jobs," she said.
"The sheriff will now be expected to determine whether people ... own their houses and whether they up on payments on them," Totonchi said.
Cronic, who was opposed to striking down the 1,000-foot rule, called the court's revised opinion "a step in the right direction." The sheriff said he believes the residency restrictions still need adjustment to stay within the boundaries of the Constitution, and hopes the Georgia General Assembly will address the matter in the coming session.
"I still think the legislature needs to go back and recraft a law that will withstand judicial review," Cronic said.