March 2, 2015 / 8:30 PM / 4 years ago

California court rules San Diego sex offender law unconstitutional

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The California Supreme Court ruled on Monday that San Diego County’s “blanket” enforcement of the state’s sex offender residency laws was unconstitutional, a decision that could open the door to wider challenges of the statute.

California’s top court issued the ruling in a legal challenge to “Jessica’s Law” by four registered sex offenders from San Diego who argued that the restrictions on where they could live infringed on their rights under the state and federal constitutions.

A trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying such residency restrictions were legal only when they were based on specific circumstances of each parolee. That decision was upheld by an appeals court.

“Blanket enforcement of residency restrictions against these parolees has ... infringed on their liberty and privacy interests, however limited, while bearing no rational relationship to advancing the state’s legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote in an opinion for the court.

The judge added the restrictions violated the plaintiffs’ “basic constitutional right to be free of unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive official action.”

Jessica’s Law, a ballot measure approved by California voters in 2006, makes it illegal for registered sex offenders to live within 2,000 feet (600 meters) of any school or park where children regularly gather.

A study conducted by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office found that huge parts of San Diego, including virtually all the downtown area, were off-limits to offenders subject to those restrictions and that they were largely shut out of the rental housing market.

“The residency restrictions place burdens on registered sex offender parolees that are disruptive in a way that hinder their treatment, jeopardizes their health and undercuts their ability to find and maintain employment, significantly undermining any effort at rehabilitation,” Baxter wrote.

The court’s ruling applied only to San Diego’s enforcement of Jessica’s Law, named after a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a man who lived near her.

But it could provide an opportunity for sex offenders in other major California cities to challenge the restrictions based on similar arguments.

A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the agency was reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Eric Walsh and Peter Cooney

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