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Suit Targets Sex Offender Law

A Georgia crackdown on those living near school bus stops is put on hold. Critics say it's impractical, unhelpful and unconstitutional.

July 02, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Wendy Whitaker cannot live in her new home, a 106-year-old bungalow with rocking chairs on its front porch and an American flag flying from its white picket fence.

A month after Whitaker, 26, bought the house in Harlem, a small town in northeastern Georgia, police officers informed her that it was within 1,000 feet of a child-care center.

Whitaker is a registered sex offender: When she was 17, she had consensual sex with a 15-year-old boy.

For the last four months, Whitaker and her husband have lived in his brother's cramped mobile home because Georgia law restricts sex offenders from living near child-care centers. And now they may have to move again. In April, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue passed a stricter law, which prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop. Anyone who does not comply faces a minimum of 10 years in prison.

Hailed by its sponsor as the "toughest law in the country," the act passed almost unanimously through Georgia's General Assembly. But now it seems destined to become a textbook example of the difficulty in imposing tougher penalties on sex offenders.

Not only do sheriffs say the bus stop restriction would be almost impossible to enforce -- Georgia has more than 10,000 sex offenders and 150,000 school bus stops -- but human rights groups have raised the thorny issue of sex offenders' constitutional rights.

On Thursday, two days before the law took effect, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper temporarily blocked the state from forcing sex offenders to move from homes near school bus stops. The restraining order remains in effect until July 11, when a hearing is scheduled on the constitutionality of the law.

Attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law center that filed a federal lawsuit last month, argue the school bus stop provision would banish thousands of Georgia's sex offenders -- many of whom, they say, pose little threat to society -- from their homes.

"I feel punished over and over and over again for something I did as a teenager," said Whitaker, the main plaintiff in the suit, who has already served five years' probation and now fears she will be forced to live apart from her husband.

Whitaker's predicament, attorneys say, demonstrates that the bus stop restriction violates the Constitution's ban on laws that are ex post facto, meaning after the fact.

"It is a fundamental concept of justice: You don't add punishment to people after the fact," said Lisa Kung, director of the law center. "Here we have many people who got five years' probation -- that's punishment. And suddenly -- wow -- 10 years later, they're banished from Georgia."

A huge number of Georgia's sex offenders live within 1,000 feet of school bus stops. In DeKalb County in suburban Atlanta, all 490 offenders would have to move; about 85 miles south, all but three of Bibb County's 30 sex offenders would have to move.

Already, some sex offenders have left Georgia. Eight have registered just across the state line in Russell County, Ala., since the law passed.

Whereas at least 15 states have introduced legislation that restricts where sex offenders may live, Georgia -- which already prohibits their living within 1,000 feet of schools, child-care centers and playgrounds -- is the first state to prohibit living near school bus stops.

But unlike many other states, Georgia does not distinguish between people convicted of violent sexual offenses such as rape and teenagers who had consensual sexual relations with minors.

Georgia does not make exceptions for those who already own or rent homes, and it does not offer hardship exemptions based on old age, illness or disability. According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, about 25 people on the registry are in nursing homes. Many are in wheelchairs, one is blind and another is 100 years old.

Yet supporters of the law -- which also imposes mandatory prison sentences of 25 years for rape and child molestation and requires sexual predators to be monitored by electronic tracking devices -- insist that the school bus stop restriction is necessary.

"Yes, it's an inconvenience; some folks will have to move," said Jerry Keen, state House majority leader, who sponsored the legislation. "But if you weigh that argument against the overall impact, which is the safety of children, most folks would agree this is a good thing."

Keen said he decided to make it as difficult as possible for sex offenders to live in Georgia after 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was raped and murdered last year in Florida. The suspect is a registered sex offender who was subsequently arrested in Augusta, Ga.

Although legislators could not figure how to craft the residency restrictions to exempt low-level offenders without creating an exception for everyone, he said, he remained confident that the law would stand.

"This is something that is taking root all over the country," he said. "People are putting a premium on the safety of kids."

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