SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The California Supreme Court on Monday upended mandatory residency restrictions for sex offenders - a consequence of "Jessica's Law" approved by voters nine years ago - calling the "blanket enforcement" of the requirements unconstitutional.
The ruling stems from a habeas corpus challenge by a group of registered sex offenders on active parole in San Diego County. They claimed - and both a trial court and an appeals court agreed - that mandatory residency restrictions imposed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation made it impossible for them to find suitable housing.
The restrictions as prescribed by Jessica's Law, which voters passed as Proposition 83 in 2006, makes it unlawful for registered sex offenders to live within 2,000 feet of any school or park where children regularly gather. The CDCR has since enforced the residency restrictions as a mandatory parole condition for all sex offenders.
But the blanket enforcement of the residency aspect of Jessica's Law has also had unintended consequences, the state's highest court held. By severely restricting where sex offenders can live, homelessness has spiked - hindering both access to medical treatment and rehabilitative services and law enforcement's efforts to supervise the parolees, the court said.
"It has thus infringed 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, and has violated their basic constitutional right to be free of unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive official action," Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the unanimous court.
In this case, a contract crime analyst for the San Diego County District Attorney's Office mapped out all housing available to registered sex offenders under the blanket enforcement of the Jessica's Law residency restrictions.
Acknowledging that the parolees are unlikely to rent single-family homes and would most likely seek housing in low-income apartments or weekly-rate motels, the analyst found just 2.9 percent of multi-family residences in the county could house sex offenders - and she arrived at that figure before accounting for San Diego County's low vacancy rate, high rents and landlords' unwillingness to rent to sex offenders.
"The exclusionary restrictions may also impact the ability of some petitioners to live and associate with family members," Baxter wrote. "They face disruption of family life because, although the restrictions do not expressly prohibit them from living with family members, if the family members' residence is not in a compliant location, they cannot live there."
Furthermore, even the CDCR acknowledged that its blanket enforcement of residency restrictions has led to a dramatic spike in homelessness. According to the department's own report, over a third of the county's 482 registered sex offenders on parole were listed as transient.
"The increased incidence of homelessness has in turn hampered the surveillance and supervision of such parolees, thereby thwarting the legitimate governmental objective behind the registration statute to which the residency restrictions attach; that of protecting the public from sex offenders," Baxter wrote in the 29-page opinion.
Meanwhile, the parolees pointed to evidence that both the CDCR and San Diego County parole authorities have refused to help them find suitable housing. The CDCR's own policy states that sex offenders bear the responsibility of finding their own compliant housing, and bars parole officers from telling them where to find places to live that comply with the restrictions of Jessica's Law, the high court said.
"We conclude the evidentiary record below establishes that blanket enforcement of Jessica's Law's mandatory residency restrictions against registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County impedes those basic, albeit limited, constitutional rights," Baxter wrote. "Furthermore, the law as applied and enforced in that county cannot survive rational basis scrutiny because it has hampered efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate such parolees in the interests of public safety, and as such, bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators."
Instead, the CDCR must enforce the restrictions on a case-by-case basis "based on and supported by the particularized circumstances of each individual parolee," the high court concluded.
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