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Lockyer's folly

The attorney general's change of position on Proposition 83 makes a bad law even worse.

December 01, 2006

HE HAD US, then he lost us.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer had a sensible response to a lawsuit challenging Proposition 83, which bans sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Lockyer ruled that the residence restriction in the initiative known as Jessica's Law wouldn't apply to offenders who already had completed their sentences before Nov. 7, when voters overwhelmingly adopted the new law. That's smart. A voter initiative shouldn't be allowed to uproot a person and his family from their home of many years just because he once had a criminal conviction -- now in his distant past -- if he's done his time and has stayed out of trouble.

Then, on Monday, Lockyer said Proposition 83 applies retroactively after all.

Sure, the ex-offender can stay in his home, the soon-to-be ex-attorney general decided. But he can't ever move without reactivating his sexoffender status and becoming subject to the same restrictions that apply to others. So if the plaintiff and his family decide to move out -- for a new job, perhaps -- they'll be pretty much excluded from any urban area in the state. And once they give up the home, they probably won't be able to return.

The federal judge hearing the lawsuit was taken aback. "The court feels a little bit ambushed here," he said. He's not the only one.

It was defensible for the attorney general to vow to enforce the lifetime residency restriction against a person who commits a sex crime, or even one who is "in the system" serving a sentence for a sex crime, at the time the new law takes effect. It's absurd for him to argue now that the law denies hundreds of people the right to move simply because he has decided that it applies retroactively.

The Times opposed Proposition 83 for a number of practical and moral reasons, although we understood the passion its author, state Sen. George Runner, had about the issue. So it's worth noting that Runner is apparently as surprised as the judge. He said he intended the law to apply only to those sex offenders paroled or otherwise leaving prison after Nov. 7, when voters adopted it.

As the state's chief law enforcement officer, Lockyer defines Proposition 83 by deciding how to enforce it. Unfortunately, he also can take a confusing law -- one that can be expanded by local governments to make more places off-limits to sex offenders -- and make it even more confusing.

It appears that's exactly what he's done. Perhaps he has been too focused on interior decorations for the state treasurer's office, as that's where he'll be by the time of the next court hearing, in February. If that's the situation, then perhaps incoming Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown has the sense to return to applying the law to current cases -- and stick with it.

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