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Will City's Repeal of Sex Offender Ban Start Trend?

Amid legal challenges, Lake Forest decides its law to keep sex offenders out of parks would cost too much to defend in court. Other cities may follow suit.

Lake Forest became the first Orange County city to repeal its ban on sex offenders in parks Tuesday, a move closely watched by community leaders around the county.

Citing the high cost of defending the measure in court, the Lake Forest City Council ended its ban on sex offenders in city parks. Cities such as Mission Viejo, Seal Beach, Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos and Laguna Niguel have similar bans that could be subject to legal challenges by convicted sex offenders. San Juan Capistrano discussed and ultimately rejected a ban out of liability and legal concerns.

It would cost at least $200,000 to defend the law on constitutional grounds, said City Attorney Scott C. Smith. And that's only if the city won, a prospect that seems increasingly questionable. Losing could add penalty costs, including paying the legal fees of the sex offenders who challenge the ban. 

The city knew it had a legal battle on its hands when the law passed unanimously last December, said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney's office.

"When we were here last year, we told them we would be sued," she said.

Mayor Kathryn McCullough asked if the D.A. would pay the city's legal costs if opponents made good on a promise to sue. 

The question set off an argument between her and D.A. Tony Rackauckas. Read a transcript of that argument here.

Rackauckas said neither he nor the county could be expected to pay the city's fees.

One activist lawyer said she had two clients ready to sue the city if the repeal did not go forward.

"If that ordinance is not repealed, that lawsuit will be filed," said Janice Bellucci, state organizer with California Reform Sex Offender Laws.

Bellucci said only 1.9 percent of California's sex offenders are arrested again for sex crimes. "They are people who have already been in prison, already paid their debt to society," she said.

"They are people who have already been in prison, already paid their debt to society," she said.

Lake Forest resident Mary Axelrod said the ban was needed to protect the city's children from molestation.

"This is a sickness, and the only way to stop this is for them to stay away and avoid the temptation, which is going into a group of children," she said. "I would think the safety of the children would outweigh lawsuits because the people come first in all occasions."

Robert Curtis, a Lake Forest hairdresser convicted 12 years ago of a misdemeanor sex crime, said the ban keeps him from watching over his son in city parks.

Rackauckas said he was unsure if the city's repeal would be repeated around the county, saying "it's pretty hard to call." Currently about half of Orange County's cities have enacted similar laws.

A county law along the same lines is no longer being enforced following the overturned conviction of Hugo Godinez.

Keeping the law on the books but not enforcing it would still leave Lake Forest with "some vulnerability" to lawsuits, Smith said.

The council tentatively reversed the measure on a 4-0 vote with one abstention. The reversal will return later for final approval.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK IN THE COMMENTS

Should cities defend the ban despite the risk of court challenges?

Chris McLaughlin December 09, 2012 at 12:28 AM
I know where you're going with this, about registered sex offenders being sick individuals who need our help and compassion instead of punishment, but you'll have to argue that one with someone else. I realize society has to balance individual liberties with collective security/public safety, but dangerous individuals should receive the help they need while not being a continued threat to our kids, and there's better ways to do that than these parks-ban laws. Seriously, look up the story on the Lake Forest grocery store creeper and tell me that guy shouldn't have still been locked up or with a GPS monitor on so they could bring him in faster after being ID'd on Megan's Law and make it harder for him to refute he hadn't been in the store(s) he was stalking that girl in at that time...
vahall December 20, 2012 at 01:25 AM
The first thing that needs to be said about laws like this is that they are a sham. There is no evidence. linking park restrictions to a reduction in sex crimes, and no way that park restrictions will do anything about the bulk of the sex-offender problem, which is the abuse of children by relatives and other people they know. The laws are simplistic, emotion-based formulas that cloak politicians in an aura of decisiveness. while doing nothing to tackle a ferociously difficult problem. The second thing is that they are a dangerous waste of law-enforcement time and resources. Police departments are already obliged under a welter of federal and state laws to register and monitor sex. offenders. Prosecutors and sheriffs around the country have complained that adding park enforcement to their large and growing offender-management portfolios only hampers their ability to fight crime. The final and most important point is that park bans send offenders underground. You may imagine these men fearsome and creepy, but if communities systematically banish them, denying them the chance to find housing and to lead stable lives under close supervision, they end up doing the logical thing. They congregate in unincorporated poor areas. Or they disappear. The sickness your DA and his sidekick have is passing unnecesary, unconstitutional and ineffective laws turning sex offenders into unstable, rootless individuals, harder to track and arguably more dangerous.
Dan Avery December 20, 2012 at 06:01 PM
Well said. Especially the last sentence. The DA's "sidekick," as you've called Councilwoman Schlicht is as simplistic as this law. If you live in Mission Viejo you really need to become acquainted with her by visiting http://protectmissionviejo.com. Oh look, they decorated the site for the holidays!
Dan Avery December 20, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Actually, Chris, where I was going isn't where you think. What our society does with anything it doesn't understand is simply lock it up, or try to make it disappear. We are talking about sick individuals who have always been with us since the day we crawled out of the slime. We still don't have a clue as to what drives them. And we should. Understanding something like this wouldn't be that hard if we put our collective minds to the task and applied some common decent humanity as we studied the problem. In other words, the "Scarlet Letter" approach you keep pitching doesn't work, it has never worked, and it will never work because it's simplistic, hollow and cruel.
Robert Curtis May 04, 2013 at 07:12 PM
I rarely see any arguments that are very strong to support the sex offender registry or these kind of laws. I believe it's because of the facts and common (not so common) sense. It's hard for a position to stand when the argument is based on what-if possibilities and emotions when reason and facts are in total opposition. TRUTH

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