Orange County supervisors have approved a law significantly restricting the movements of registered sex offenders, banning them from entering some beaches, parks and harbor areas.
Under the rules, sex offenders who visit any of dozens of public spaces without prior approval from county officials face up to six months in jail or a $500 fine. The ban covers some of the region's top attractions including the Orange County Zoo, Irvine Regional Park, Newport Harbor and Dana Point Harbor.
The law, approved unanimously by the board Tuesday, is the latest in a controversial series of ordinances across the country aimed at limiting where sex offenders can live and visit. It was championed by Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who said the idea was to keep sex offenders away from children and families.
"We are setting up a safety zone by keeping parks and recreation zones safe from predators," Rackauckas said.
But critics immediately expressed skepticism about the law, saying it would be difficult to enforce and appeared politically motivated.
Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor, said the law was overly broad and misdirected, because more than nine out of 10 sex crimes targeting children are committed not by strangers in a park, but by family members or acquaintances.
"It's trying to solve a problem nobody knows exists," he said, adding that laws imposing restrictions on sex offenders are snowballing because they are politically popular.
"Who's going to lose votes being against child molestation?" he said.
Orange County's ordinance appears to be the first legal move in California imposing across-the-board restrictions on where sex offenders can be. Los Angeles County in 2009 passed legislation banning registered sex offenders from "loitering" within 300 feet of "child safety zones," which include schools, public libraries and parks. Existing state law also prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school or park in California.
Illinois passed a law last year making it a misdemeanor for sex offenders to be in or within 500 feet of a public park, and a South Carolina lawmaker introduced similar legislation after a 17-year-old was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender at a park on the other side of the country, in San Diego County.
At the board meeting Tuesday, some supervisors asked exactly how the new law would be enforced. Rackauckas and Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Adam Powell said only that it would be enforced on a "case by case" basis.
One supervisor, John M.W. Moorlach, also raised concerns about whether the ordinance would infringe on constitutional rights and end up forcing the county to spend more money defending the rules in court.
A bill in the California Legislature last year initially included a provision banning all sex offenders from parks where children regularly gather. But lawmakers ultimately limited the language to parolees whose victims had been under age 14. The change made the ban more enforceable because these parolees are required to wear GPS devices.
There have already been legal challenges elsewhere. In Jeffersonville, Ind., where a city ordinance banning sex offenders from parks was passed in 2007, a man convicted of sexual battery against a 13-year-old girl sued when he was not allowed to watch his son play Little League baseball because of the ban. The Court of Appeal there ruled that in his case, the ordinance was unconstitutional because he had been convicted and completed his registration as an offender before the law took effect.
Jeffrey McBride, a 43-year-old Laguna Beach resident, spoke against the ordinance at the meeting, telling the supervisors the move would be unconstitutional.
"Not all registrants are the same," said McBride, who is on the state registry of sex offenders for alleged possession of child pornography. The ordinance would be "destroying the lives of family and friends who are proving that they can be trusted again," he said.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who proposed the ordinance along with Rackauckas, noted that McBride was on the registry and said the goal of the law was to protect children.
Without the law, he said, sex offenders "can sit there and watch these children."
Jill Levenson, a veteran social worker and professor of human services at Lynn University in Florida, said such laws should be tailored to avoid unintended consequences. Restrictions on offenders can exacerbate their risk of reoffending by making them feel backed into a corner and like they have nothing to lose, she said.
"There may very well be certain sex offenders who shouldn't be in parks, but rather than a blanket law, that should be part of assessment ... based on the risks and needs of individual criminal offenders," she said.