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Megan's Law gives buyers another tool

Think you know the neighborhood? Think again. Home shoppers are turning to sex offender databases to get the whole picture.

November 17, 2002|Michelle Hofmann | Special to The Times

Larissa Schultz and Ernie Duran looked beyond the usual considerations -- price, size and location -- when buying their Signal Hill condominium. The couple also researched the number of registered sex offenders reported as living in the area.

Since July 1, 1999, California law has required that purchase contracts for residential property serve as a notification to buyers of the availability of information on sex offenders. They also must include resources for information, such as county Web-based information as well as the state's Megan's Law database, a public notification and registration program named for a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender who moved into her neighborhood.

Because the law does not require sellers or agents to track down the number of registered sex offenders in any given area, June Barlow, vice president and general counsel of the California Assn. of Realtors, recommends that home buyers do their own research on sex offenders in an area before making a purchase.

Told by her real estate agent about the availability of such data, Schultz used the Los Angeles County Sex Offender Locator Web site and discovered there were five "serious" sex offenders living within one-tenth of a mile of the condominium she wanted to buy and 22 within a one-half mile radius.

Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties also provide this information online. The county sites use color-coded maps to show approximate locations of convicted sex offenders. However, unlike Megan's Law online reports, which have more detailed information, county site maps can be searched only by ZIP Codes, addresses, schools or parks.

Residents statewide can access Megan's Law information via computer terminals at justice and probation departments, college campus police stations and sheriff and police departments. The database allows viewers to search by name, ZIP Code, county, birth date, physical description and crime. It provides details on physical appearance, ethnic background, aliases, identifying marks and tattoos, sometimes with photos. It also describes the crimes committed, using penal code sections to identify and explain the types of crimes.

Offenders are categorized as "other" (someone convicted of indecent exposure, pornography or spousal rape), "serious" (a felony sex offender or misdemeanor child molester) and "high risk" (those with a higher recidivism rate, which means they may pose a greater danger to the public). According to the state Department of Justice, California is home to about 97,077 known sex offenders, including 17,047 in Los Angeles County and 3,119 in Orange County.

Armed with the facts and comfortable with their decision, Duran and Schultz, who don't have children, purchased the Signal Hill home anyway. "If we had found a [known] sex offender living within the condominium complex, that may have affected our decision," she said.

However, not every informed buyer is still willing to buy. For some, concerns about reduced home prices and safety issues related to living near a registered sex offender are deal breakers.

Will Brown, a real estate agent at Century 21 Better Homes in Santa Monica, said one buyer backed out of a deal after the family learned that three sex offenders lived within one mile of the sale property. The client bought a different home.

Barlow suggested that buyers use the inspection period to research the property themselves. As with any potential problem related to purchasing a home, buyers who locate known sex offenders living close to the property during the inspection period have the right to terminate sales contracts and receive full refunds of their deposits, she said.

When moving to an area with known sex offenders, Barlow said, buyers should consider factors such as the route their children might take to school, the nature of the offense and how far away the offender lives.

Moreover, Brown said buyers who have lived in an area for some time and are looking to buy nearby should not assume they know the neighborhood. "I can't imagine investing $500,000 in a property and walking in there ignorant," he said.

Since 1997, about 250,000 people have viewed the state's Megan's Law database, searching for information on employees, child-care workers, pastors, neighbors, landlords, tenants, coaches, youth counselors, teachers, friends, boyfriends, spouses and family members, according to Mike Van Winkle, state Department of Justice spokesman. And for the last six years, the state agency has provided Megan's Law information at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.

Camille Abdalla did not search the database before purchasing her Pasadena home in June 2000. While visiting the fair with her 2-year-old daughter in September, Abdalla and her husband, Anthony, checked the Megan's Law database. They found 38 known sex offenders in their ZIP Code.

"I looked at every single picture, hoping that I wouldn't see anyone I recognized," she said. "I didn't."

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