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New law orders libraries to oust sex offenders

LANCASTER – In a unanimous vote, the five-member City Council this week gave its initial approval to an ordinance that, among other restrictions, bans registered sex offenders from going near public libraries and museums.

A Santa Barbara County attorney, who traveled about 100 miles to the Antelope Valley to protest the proposed ordinance, said it will be contested in court.

“The one thing I forgot to say in there is, ‘You will be sued,'” attorney Janice Bellucci said outside of City Council chambers Tuesday night moments after she publicly addressed Lancaster officials.

Bellucci is president of a statewide nonprofit group named California Reform Sex Offender Laws, which seeks to advocate on behalf of those impacted by such laws.

She said an Antelope Valley resident contacted her earlier in the day about the proposed ordinance, and she traveled about three hours to speak at the meeting.

“What their incentive or motivation is, I don’t know,” Bellucci said. Sex offenders, she said, “have paid their debt to society, and it should be over after that. When murderers are released from prison, do we have a registry for them? I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather know if a murderer is living next to me.”

For nearly a year, a group of Lancaster officials have been working on the language of such an ordinance that initially aimed to prevent registered sex offenders from attempting to lure trick-or-treaters into their homes on Halloween night.

The officials’ effort is modeled after a state law that prevents sex offenders on parole from decorating their homes or turning on outdoor lights on Halloween.

The Lancaster Criminal Justice Commission, an advisory body to the City Council that meets monthly, recommended the policy be expanded to include all registered sex offenders and not just those on parole.

In developing their recommended ordinance, the commissioners sought to pass a far-reaching law that significantly restricts areas where registered sex offenders may visit on a year-round basis.

Modeled after an existing ordinance in the San Bernardino County city of Ontario, the commission suggested prohibiting such offenders from living or going near schools, parks, day-care centers, public and private playgrounds, arcades and youth sports facilities.

In that respect, the Lancaster proposal was almost identical to one approved by the Palmdale City Council in 2008.

Except, the Lancaster commission – again mirroring the Ontario ordinance – opted to go even further by prohibiting sex offenders from being within 300 feet of a public library or museum.

Further, as Commissioner Jim Gaupel said Tuesday night, by putting arcades in the ordinance, the city would effectively stop sex offenders from going near the city’s two largest movie theaters because they have arcades inside.

Gaupel, who works as a state parole agent and has supervised sex offenders as part of his work over the years, said libraries and movie theaters are particularly vulnerable spots under current laws, which are outlined in the state’s 2006 voter-approved Jessica’s Law.

“I have a real good feel for sex offenders, and I strongly feel this ordinance is needed,” Gaupel said at the meeting. “It will protect our community.

“The sex offenders have to find their children somewhere. If we can limit (their ability to go) to where children congregate, we have a better chance of protecting children. I strongly feel this ordinance will protect our community.”

Attorney Bellucci, who was accompanied by California Reform Sex Offender Laws board member Frank Lindsay, said Lancaster officials don’t have all the facts and are operating “out of fear,” under the presumption that the majority of sex offenders are likely to re-offend.

“I’m a mother and I’m a woman, so I’m an unlikely candidate to be taking this cause on today,” she said. The ordinance, she said, “is based on several myths, and one of them is ‘stranger danger,’ and the other is that there is a high recidivism rate (among sex offenders), which is not true.”

After the meeting, Bellucci said she’s not trying to protect serial child predators with multiple convictions and multiple victims. Rather, she said, she’s speaking up on behalf of those who committed an offense, served the penalty and have made the transition back into society, only to be burdened by a lifetime scar stamped on their records in the form of California’s sex offender registry.

Bellucci’s group is among those lobbying state lawmakers in Sacramento to amend the state’s sex offender laws so they include tiers for those convicted of such crimes based on the seriousness and violence of the act.

The tiered system, she said, would allow reformed sex offenders to come off the registry after a certain period of time while also ensuring that the serial predators are handled adequately.

Though he voted in favor of the ordinance, which will come back for final passage at the City Council’s Sept. 11 meeting, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said he recognizes the unintended faults of it.

“For what it’s worth, I do think our sex offender laws are exceptionally broad, and I think it’d be much more effective if we could narrow it down to what we commonly think are sex offenses, but that’s not for us to do, that’s for somebody else to do,” Parris said. “As to the inconvenience it causes, there is an easy way to deal with it. They can move, and I would invite them to do so.”

City officials believe they are protected from a potential civil rights lawsuit because the ordinance contains an exemption that nullifies the law “to the extent that it restricts access for the purposes of exercising constitutional rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and religion.”

City Attorney Dave McEwen said under the ordinance, sex offenders may also use the facilities when children aren’t present.

“The courts have concluded that libraries are a source of information to people and therefore they are entitled to use under the First Amendment,” McEwen said. “There are times available to the registered sex offenders that they can use the facilities and obtain the information they need.”

Bellucci disagreed with McEwen’s observations.

Specifically, she cited a Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmation earlier this year of a federal judge’s ruling that determined a similar ban preventing sex offenders in Albuquerque, N.M., from using public libraries was unconstitutional.

The earlier ruling stated that the city failed to satisfy the legal test for imposing restrictions in a public forum.

According to a news story in the Albuquerque Journal, though, a city attorney said officials knew all along “there were some technical problems” with the ordinance.

A separate policy was later passed under new leadership, according to the story, that restricted registered sex offenders’ usage of the public library to certain hours, determined to be Thursdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

McEwen, Lancaster’s city attorney, said earlier this week he believes the ordinance allows for access to the library while also offering protection to potential victims.

Further, city officials said, they are confident their ordinance will survive any test because it has already been challenged in Ontario and other jurisdictions that have adopted similar bans.

Source: Antelope Valley Press

Related (with City Council Meeting Video): City of Lancaster: Parks, Museums, Libraries, Bus Stops, Movie Theaters, Halloween – pretty much everything – Ban

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