JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Dozens of Missouri sex offenders can continue living near schools or child care centers as a result of a state Supreme Court decision.
In a unanimous ruling Tuesday, Missouri's high court upheld a decision in May by a circuit judge striking down a portion of Missouri's sex offender statutes that could have forced the sex offenders to move.
Missouri, like many other states, has enacted progressively tougher laws targeting its roughly 7,200 registered sex offenders.
Since 2004, Missouri has prohibited sex offenders from moving into a home within 1,000 feet of a school or day care. A 2006 law expanded that ban to cover sex offenders who already lived near a school or child care center before the law took effect.
Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce declared that portion of the law unconstitutional because of its retroactive application. The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on a state appeal Jan. 31 and ruled Tuesday -- an unusually speedy decision.
St. Louis attorney Chet Pleban, who represented the sex offender who sued, said the court's quick action affirms his contention that the law "clearly was unconstitutional."
"The reality of this is that this was an ill-conceived piece of legislation, because it was a vote for apple pie, motherhood and the American flag," Pleban said. "The fact of the matter is sex offenders are not popular people in this state."
The provision was part a broad bill targeting sex offenders that passed the House 157-0 and the Senate 33-0 with the backing of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt. The main portions of that bill required 30-year prison sentences for raping or sodomizing children younger than 12 and life prison sentences for certain repeat sex offenders.
Blunt defended the stricken law, which he said barred "deviants from living close to where our children learn and play."
"Every decent society should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens," Blunt said Tuesday in a written statement, "and it is an outrage that our state's highest court has ruled in favor of sex offenders who want to continue living near schools and child care facilities."
After the law took, the state Department of Corrections identified 69 sex offenders on probation or parole who in fall 2006 were living within 1,000 feet of a school of child care facility, said spokesman Brian Hauswirth. Each of them was sent a letter asking them to relocate.
The actual number of sex offenders affected by Tuesday's ruling could be significantly higher, because only about 1,600 of the state's roughly 7,200 registered sex offenders are under state supervision. The rest have completed their sentences.
Hauswirth said the department stopped enforcing the provision requiring sex offenders with previously established residences to move away from schools after the Cole County court decision. The portion covering new residents remains in effect.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a St. Louis County offender identified in court documents only as "R.L." Pleban said his client lived near a private school, which he did not identify, and that school officials are aware of his presence.
The man pleaded guilty in December 2005 to attempted enticement of a child and was placed on five years probation. At the time of his plea, there was no law that would have required a sex offender to move away from a school.
Missouri's 2006 law contained an exception from the school-area ban for sex offenders who had lived in their homes before the schools or child-care centers opened. But that exception did not cover the man who sued, because the school had existed since 1988 and the man had lived there since 1997.
"The fact of the matter is that the constitution was set up to protect people like that, and it worked in this case," Pleban said. ..more.. by David A. Lieb, The Assocaited Press
Case is R.L. v. State of Missouri Department of Corrections, SC88644.
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February 20, 2008