By Maura Dolan
The California Supreme Court decided unanimously Monday that blanket statewide restrictions on where sex offenders may live violate the constitutional rights of parolees in San Diego County -- and potentially those in other counties.
The residential limits, passed by voters in 2006 as Jessica's Law, bar registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park where children gather, regardless of whether the crimes involved children. Sex offenders in San Diego challenged the restrictions, saying that they made it impossible to find a place to live.
"Blanket enforcement of the residency restrictions against these parolees has severely restricted their ability to find housing," Justice Marvin R. Baxter, who is now retired, wrote for the court.
The rules have "increased the incidence of homelessness among them, and hindered their access to medical treatment, drug and alcohol dependency services, psychological counseling and other rehabilitative social services available to all parolees," Baxter wrote.
Although the decision technically affects only San Diego County, it paves the way for offenders in other counties, particularly those with large cities, to challenge the residency rules.
A report by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that after Jessica's Law was passed, the number of homeless sex offenders statewide increased by 24 times in three years. As of Feb. 28, 8,329 sex offender parolees in California were required to register.
"A number of counties in California will be vulnerable to challenges because San Diego is by no means unique in the rate of homelessness of sex offenders and the unavailability of housing," Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said. "I would say all of the urban counties are going to be looking at similar situations."
The court said parole officers may restrict where sex offenders may live in San Diego, but the limits must be tailored to the offenders' individual circumstances.
Under Jessica's Law, parolees are advised of the restrictions and are responsible for finding housing that complies with them.
One of the offenders who challenged the requirement was William Taylor, who must register as a sex offender after being convicted of a sexual assault in Arizona in 1991 on an adult woman. Taylor has a long criminal history, but he has never been convicted of another sex crime or one involving children, the court said.
Taylor, who has several major illnesses, wanted to live with a family member who was a health professional, but the restrictions made that impossible. At the suggestion of his parole officer, he lived outside for a while in an alley behind the parole office, the court said.
Another parolee, Stephen Todd, was forced to live in the riverbed of the San Diego River.
San Diego County planners developed a map showing where registered sex offenders could live, the court said. Huge sections of urban and suburban San Diego, including almost all of the downtown and the residential neighborhoods in Chula Vista, Vista, El Cajon, Lemon Grove and National City, were off limits.
A hearing ordered by the court also found that parolees typically could spend no more than $850 on housing, limiting their options. Of 482 registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County, 34% were registered as homeless or transient.
Parole officers testified at the hearing that homeless parolees were more difficult to supervise and posed more of a risk to public safety than those with residences. With such evidence, the court found the restrictions did not advance the state's goal of protecting children and infringed on parolees' constitutional right to be free of unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive government action.
In a separate but related decision Monday, the court ruled that judges may require people to register as sex offenders, even if they are convicted of no sex crimes, and to be subject to residency requirements.
Steven Lloyd Mosley challenged a judge's decision ordering him to register, contending that the residential restrictions amounted to a punishment. Mosley had been accused of committing a lewd act on a child younger than 14, but a jury convicted him instead of simple assault. Mosley said a jury, not a judge, should have determined whether he was required to register.
The majority disagreed, upholding the residency requirements as part of his offender registration. Justice Goodwin Liu, joined by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, wrote separately. They agreed that Mosley could be required to register but disagreed that he should have to abide by residency restrictions.
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