By: Craig Currier
LANCASTER -In the face of a lawsuit challenging the city’s six-month-old ban on registered sex offenders going near libraries, parks, museums and other public places, the City Council is expected to adopt a significantly scaled back version of the policy at its meeting Tuesday.
The revised ordinance would eliminate all restrictions on the places where sex offenders may travel and frequent and focus on limiting their activities on Halloween night, which was the initial motivation for the policy when it was first suggested some 18 months ago.
Vice Mayor Marvin Crist, a fervent supporter of the ordinance when it passed in September, said the revisions don’t signify a change in philosophy.
“There are a lot of lawsuits up and down the state so instead of us getting into that battle we would prefer to let it go through the courts with somebody else,” Crist said.
Attorney Janice Bellucci, who represents three registered sex offenders in the lawsuit filed Dec. 18 in federal court, said she would drop the challenge if Lancaster’s City Council adopts the revised ordinance.
Bellucci, though, said the lawsuit could be renewed if city leaders opt to move forward with the sweeping policy in the future.
“We certainly see this as a step in the right direction,” Bellucci said. “We’re encouraged that they’re going to do the right thing.”
The lawsuit against Lancaster is one of three pending court challenges brought on by Bellucci, who represents an activist group known as California Reform Sex Offender Laws.
Bellucci and other members of the group protested the city ordinance in the weeks leading up to its Sept. 11 passage.
Identified in the lawsuit only as John, Jane and Jake Doe, the plaintiffs say the law is “overbroad and burdens substantially more constitutionally protected conduct than is necessary to further any governmental interest.”
Bellucci has said the Lancaster ordinance includes some of the most stringent restrictions in the state and “as far as Southern California, it’s the worst of the worst.”
Specifically, Lancaster’s ordinance prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school, park or day care center. It also makes it unlawful for them to travel within 300 feet of a list of public places, including bus stops near parks, public libraries, museums, arcades and parks.
Bellucci and others who spoke in opposition believe the ordinance treats every registered sex offender as an unreformed predator.
Opponents said not all people ordered to register as sex offenders under California law are violent criminals and child predators. As few as 5% of those convicted of such crimes re-offend, they claimed.
The idea for the ordinance came from Lancaster’s Criminal Justice Commission in November 2011 as a one-night expansion of a statewide checkup on paroled sex offenders each Halloween, known as “Operation Boo.”
The commissioners proposed a local ordinance that covered all registered sex offenders, prohibiting them from turning on outdoor lights or decorating their homes in an attempt to attract young trick-or-treaters to their doors.
The policy, though, grew larger as the commissioners studied similar ordinances in Southern California, specifically one adopted by the Ontario City Council.
In addition to the Halloween bans, they recommended the City Council also include year-round restrictions on where sex offenders may live and travel.
The revised ordinance will only include the Halloween night restrictions.
Crist, though, reiterated his support for the larger policy at some point.
“I don’t think it’s too far-reaching,” he said. “We’re trying to give law enforcement every tool we can to protect the kids.”