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February 8, 2016

Notable battles in Texas over local sex offender residency restrictions in small towns

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting new AP article headlined "More Than 20 Texas Town Repeal Sex Offender Residency Law," which reports that a "broad legal challenge has led more than 20 towns in Texas to ease restrictions over the last few months on where sex offenders can live instead of fight a costly battle in court." Here is more:

While other states, including neighboring Oklahoma, continue to push offenders away from some neighborhoods, about 45 Texas towns received letters in November from the group Texas Voices for Reason and Justice demanding they repeal residency restrictions. The nonprofit, which is critical of sex offender laws it considers ineffective, also has sued 14 towns and has a powerful ally — the state attorney general's office. "We advocate an individual assessment on a case-by-case basis to determine if someone is a threat to the community," said Richard Gladden, an attorney for the group. "The myth that people who commit sex offenses just generally are unable to control their sexual conduct is just that, a myth."

At issue is how Texas' small towns are differentiated from larger ones. Communities with fewer than 5,000 people are "general law" towns, which can't adopt an ordinance that the Legislature hasn't permitted. Dozens of these smaller communities have restricted where sex offenders can live — usually with the purpose of keeping them away from schools and other places children gather — but only later learned they've run afoul of state rules. "Unless the Legislature expressly authorizes it, a general-law municipality may not adopt an ordinance restricting where a registered sex offender may live," according to a 2007 opinion signed by then-AG Greg Abbott, who's now Texas governor. Larger cities fall under "home rule," which means they have "a constitutional right of self-government," Abbott wrote.

But the Texas Municipal League, which provides support services and lobbies on behalf of cities, is pushing for legislative action that reverses Abbott's decision. "It's new where a general-law city has had its authority taken away by an attorney general's opinion," executive director Bennett Sandlin said.

The state allows leaders in general law towns to fashion municipal rules for "the good government, peace or order of the municipality," Sandlin said, such as zoning and noise control laws. But state officials can step in when local laws overreach....

Krum Mayor Ronald Harris Jr. said litigation prevents him from talking about whether his town will repeal its law, but he criticized the Legislature for not acting on behalf of small-town Texas. "They're saying that we as a small town don't have a right to have an ordinance to protect our children and our residents, but larger towns do," Harris said.

The city manager of Alvarado, which is south of Fort Worth, has told WFAA-TV in Dallas that although residents expressed concern about repealing the law, they know valuable town money could evaporate under the weight of a lawsuit. "They're disappointed that we're not able to regulate our own town," said Clint Davis, who did not respond to a message left by The Associated Press for comment....

Gladden argues myriad laws aren't necessarily benefiting public safety. In many cases, he said, an innocent "Romeo and Juliet relationship" can result in a young man being prosecuted for having sex with a minor and labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life.  Meanwhile, federal statistics show the overwhelming number of sex abuse cases involving children are perpetrated by a family member or friend of the family, and not an anonymous stranger, he said.  "Obviously, people are concerned about their kids and sometimes people are so overwhelmed by their natural instinct to protect their children that they don't necessarily use their heads and see what works and doesn't work," Gladden said.

But Sandlin argues the residency restrictions are common-sense measures to protect children and don't amount to an unwarranted hardship, as some would claim, because Census data shows more than 90 percent of land in Texas is outside incorporated cities. "Cities are dense urban areas where it makes sense to regulate where sex offenders live," Sandlin said.

I have long considered political and legal disputes over local sex offender residency restrictions to be among the most interesting and dynamic criminal justice arenas for debating what might be called "local federalism."  But I am not aware of any other state in which certain localities were allowed to enact sex offender residency restrictions and others were not, and I suppose this story is just still further proof that Texas often has its own unique approach to justice.

February 8, 2016 at 04:26 PM | Permalink


I don't have a legal background, but maybe someone out there who does can explain why residency restriction laws can vary from state to state, county to county and town to town? It's happening in states other than Texas, Florida is having the same issues. Seems like the government takes a stand on the "one-size-fits-all" labeling of SO's, but when it comes to where they can live, it's a government, state, county, town free-for-all with everyone making up "not-in-my-backyard" rules.
Is the idea of seemingly endless residency restrictions just a way to keep SO's from living in any neighborhood? These laws go into effect to intentionally trip-up SO's, OK to live here, but step over that country line and back to prison you go.
I'm glad that Texas Voices for Reason and Justice threatens lawsuits, if the general public would educate themselves regarding sex offences and the fact that most are committed by someone they know, instead of falling for the scary media driven lies that are reported regarding sex offences and recidivism, the world would be a better place.
Live and let live.

Posted by: kat | Feb 9, 2016 11:21:37 AM

These residency restriction laws against somebody who has served his or her time could actually endanger the safety of said town, particularly of its law enforcement personnel. I could visualize where a disgruntled former sex offender might decide to openly defy this law, and, if caught, threaten to use an illegally or legally acquired weapon against any police or parole officer that attempts to enforce said law.

Already in Savannah, GA, we had at least one incident where a former sex offender living in a mobile home in a restricted area retaliated by phoning a bomb threat to the local police station that houses the registry. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Our law enforcement personnel take enough risks in their job without having to enforce stupid laws that simply put them to greater risk to their own safety without protecting the locale they are sworn to protect. When a town loses its officers to murder or due to other unfortunate circumstances, it also makes that particular town less safe with one less officer to protect it.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Feb 10, 2016 4:05:27 PM

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