ACLU Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Review Iowa's Sex Offender Residency Restriction

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
September 29, 2005 12:00 am

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DES MOINES — The Iowa Civil Liberties Union announced today that its is asking the Supreme Court to overturn Iowa’s unprecedented law that restricts where sex offenders with victims under the age of 18 can reside. The Court will likely decide by the end of the year whether to hear the case.

As the second state in the nation to pass such a law, Iowa restricts nearly every registered sex offender from residing within 2,000 feet of a school, day care facility or registered in-home childcare provider.

“This law is not only a law enforcement nightmare, but it also breaks up families, separating parents from their children, causing homelessness and — unless changes are made — will likely cost the taxpayers of this state millions,” said ICLU Executive Director Ben Stone. “Our jails and prisons likely are going to be filled with law-abiding citizens who served their sentence years ago, but who will be incarcerated again simply because they cannot find a place to live under this law,” he added.

When the law went into effect in July 2002, the ICLU quickly filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all affected sex offenders and succeeded in getting a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt in February 2004 that the law was unconstitutional. This past summer, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals overturned the ruling. The full court of appeals declined to rehear the case by a one-vote margin.

The ICLU maintains that the residency restrictions are ineffective because they do not focus on offenders who are a threat to small children and do not prevent predators from traveling to areas where children could be abducted.

At the same time, the statute amounts to the unconstitutional punishment of “banishment,” the ICLU said. Indeed, maps of Des Moines and many Iowa municipalities show there is hardly anywhere for a sex offender to live.

Typically entire cities are blocked off because of the number and size of circles drawn around targeted facilities and homes.

Since September 1 of this year, law enforcement officials have been scrambling to commence enforcement of the law. Most jurisdictions have been sending law enforcement officers to the doors of registered sex offenders telling them they have to move or face arrest.

The ICLU said it is important for people to realize that the law is sweeping in whom it covers, both in scope and time.

“The 2,000-foot rule applies equally to all kinds of people who don’t fit the public perception of the typical sex offender,” Stone said. “The law covers cases where a 19-year-old had sex with a 15-year-old, as well as persons who pled guilty to exposing themselves at a party. And, perhaps most significantly, the law has no time limit — middle-aged fathers with wives and children who have had no criminal convictions for decades are being forced to leave their families.”

In its petition for appeal, the ICLU urged the Justices to review the statute promptly because towns and cities across the nation are quickly adopting laws and ordinances banning sex offenders from living in their jurisdictions. In fact, it has been reported that the eastern Iowa town of Ely, which did not have a school or day care, passed an ordinance banning sex offenders from residing in nearly the entire town. Similar legislation is being passed or proposed in many states.

For example, in a September 15, 2005 interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Florida State Representative Rep. Susan Goldstein, who recently introduced such a bill in the Florida legislature, said the goal is “to get these people out of our neighborhoods and hopefully out of our state.”

The name of the ICLU litigation is Does I, II & III v. Miller, et al. The case was originally filed in the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Iowa, Case No. 3:03-cv-90067. The lead counsel for the ICLUF is Phil Mears from Iowa City, Iowa.

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