BROOKLYN (CN) - A convicted sex offender can continue his federal civil rights case against a Long Island-based advocacy group he says repeatedly dogged him at his home in a campaign to rid the county of sex offenders, a federal judge ruled.
The plaintiff, identified only as "John Jones," sued the group Parents for Megan's Law in federal court in Central Islip in January 2015, claiming it was hired by Suffolk County officials to monitor sex offenders and run them out of town in violation of their Constitutional rights.
Jones was convicted of rape and sodomy in 1992, did his time and was released in the late 1990s. He now lives with his wife and children in Suffolk County, holds a steady job, and will be allowed to be released from obligations to register as a sex offender next month, U.S. District Judge Joanne Seybert noted.
His conviction as a "level one" offender - a designation for those deemed to pose a moderate risk of reoffending - still meant he had to register every year with the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, visit his local police precinct to get photographed every three years, and tell authorities if he moves.
Suffolk County lawmakers passed a bill in February 2013 to establish "an aggressive sex offender monitoring and verification program" within its borders, Seybert said in her 23-page ruling.
At the time, Jones' lawsuit said, one legislator commented, "We're really going to put sunlight on these bugs ... I'd like to exterminate them. We're going to drive them out of our neighborhoods, out of our communities, out of our county."
That bill also established a three-year contract between the Suffolk County Police and Parents of Megan's Law, directing the group to track and monitor the county's sex offenders; that agreement will end this April.
The plaintiff says he receive a letter in the summer of 2013 telling him that he should expect a visit from the organization, and that he was "required" to provide them with the information they requested, that he turn over his driver's license upon request, and that he disclose to them his employment information.
Ten days later, agents came to his door, and the man's youngest son answered.
His wife told the officers that her husband was in the shower, so agents waited on the front porch for 15 minutes until he emerged. They then "followed closely behind [him] as he walked to the front walkway to the street where his car was parked to retrieve the license he kept inside it, and "stood within two feet" of him.
They also asked him "multiple questions" about his employment - which is not a required disclosure as a low-level offender, Seybert noted.
The plaintiff said he was warned by the agents that he could expect further, unannounced visits.
True to their word, three agents returned last July. One knocked on the door, another stood in the driveway, and another sat in a parked car with the door open. They demanded his identification, and again asked him questions beyond the scope of their authority, he says.
The plaintiff sued, claiming he and his family "live in fear that their friends or neighbors will be present the next time" the agents pay him a visit, Seybert noted.
The county and the advocacy group moved to dismiss the complaint, stating that the agency is not a state actor and therefore, the plaintiff did not suffer any constitutional violations.
But Seybert disagreed, and allowed the complaint to continue.
"The court agrees," she wrote, that the agency was a "state actor for purposes of the challenged conduct, both because [its] monitoring operations were directed by the [police department], and because [it] was expressly delegated a public function."
As such, the man's claims of Fourth Amendment violations of wrongful police scrutiny hold water, Seybert said.
The agency claimed it was merely conducting standard operating procedures or what's known as a "knock and talk." But Seybert saw that as a legal reach and a potential abuse of power.
"The allegations in the complaint raise questions about whether a reasonable person in Jones' position would feel free to terminate his interactions with" the agents, Seybert wrote.
The incidents occurred within his "cartilage - an area afforded heightened Fourth Amendment protection," she added.
Although the letter sent to Jones warning him of a forthcoming visit used words like "asked" and "requested" in its advisory for potential requests for information, agents made it seem like he would be required to give them the information they sought, she said.
"At the very least, the letter is ambiguous as to whether compliance was mandatory."
"The fact that the agents waited for 15 minutes on Jones' porch while he was in the shower, 'followed [him] closely] as he walked to retrieve his driver's license, and told Jones that 'they may make subsequent, unannounced appearances at his job' gives the encounter the appearance of a seizure of Jones' person, rather than a consensual 'knock and talk,'" Seybert said before deciding to refuse to dismiss the claim against the department.
Jones is represented by Erin Harrist with the New York Civil Liberties Union in Manhattan.
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