Judge rules Iowa sex offender law unconstitutional

Judge rules Iowa sex offender law unconstitutional

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DES MOINES -- A federal judge sided with civil liberties advocates Monday and struck down a controversial Iowa law intended to bar sex offenders who committed crimes against children from living near schools or day cares.

Iowa's law created a 2,000-foot "buffer zone" around those facilities where offenders were legally banned from residing.

But U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt, in a 63-page ruling Monday, declared the statute unconstitutionally restrictive on multiple grounds.

His ruling was a sweeping victory for the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the law on behalf of several unnamed "John Doe" sex offenders. The ICLU argued that the law's broad residence restrictions blanketed most towns and cities and "banished" offenders to live in only the state's smallest hamlets and rural areas.

The law has been on hold since last July, when Pratt issued a restraining order halting its enforcement.

"We're pleased. This law was flawed from the beginning," said Ben Stone, executive director of the ICLU. "It was a nightmare to enforce. The law was based more on emotion than reality."

While conceding that the law targeted the "most deplorable of offenders," Pratt ruled that the statute violated their right to live with family members and to travel freely. He contends that the law lacked adequate due process protections, failed to weigh the varied risks posed by individual offenders and forced offenders to incriminate themselves when they registered with local police.

Pratt also argued that the law violated constitutional protections against "Ex Post Facto" punishments by targeting offenders who committed crimes even before limits took effect in July 2002.

"The state has offered no evidence demonstrating that a 2,000-foot 'buffer zone' actually protects children," Pratt wrote in his ruling.

"Upon completion of the sex offender's sentence, the offender has paid his or her debt to society and should have the opportunity to start anew," Pratt wrote.

But Pratt also ruled that the law did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Iowa Attorney General's Office, which defended the law, is reviewing the ruling and may contest Pratt's decision before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, state officials contend parole and probation officers are keeping a close watch on offenders.

The ruling likely throws the issue back to state lawmakers, who said Monday they are committed to crafting a new law before the 2004 session ends.

"I think it's perfectly legitimate to provide some type of (buffer) zone," said Sen. Don Redfern, R-Cedar Falls, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We're just going to have to work on an appropriate distance."

Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, sponsored the original 2,000-foot requirement and still favors a distance limit.

"They committed a crime. We're trying to keep them away from our kids if possible," Behn said.

However, the legal hurdles set up by Pratt's ruling may be difficult for lawmakers to clear.

He ruled that while the buffer zone amounts to an additional punishment for offenders, lawmakers failed to set up a system for appealing that punishment. Although the state compared the statute to zoning laws, Pratt strongly disagreed.

"Were the class of people subject to regulation other than convicted sex offenders, the state's forced segregation would prompt outrage," Pratt wrote.

Experts who testified at a December hearing on the case, Pratt wrote, argued the distance would have little effect in deterring a determined offender.

Pratt ruled that not only did the law limit where offenders could live, it also restricted their family's ability to choose a place of residence. He cited testimony from the wife of a John Doe plaintiff who moved with her husband 40 miles into the country and was forced to drive 30 miles to find suitable child care.

Because the law defined a residence as "the place where a person sleeps," Pratt argued that it technically could apply to most of the state's hotels and motels.

"Sex offenders would appear to be able to travel in Iowa only so long as they do not stop," Pratt wrote.

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