Minnesota sex offenders challenge residency restrictions
By Chris Serres . . . Three convicted rapists awaiting release from state custody are suing the city of Dayton, Minn., over an ordinance that virtually bans them from living in the city, arguing that the measure violates their Constitutional rights and is trumped by state law.
The men are challenging a far-reaching 2016 ordinance that bars convicted sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school, day care center, park, playground, public bus stop — even a pumpkin patch or apple orchard — within the city of Dayton, a rural community of about 5,000 residents northwest of the Twin Cities.
Because of the ordinance, they argue, the three offenders remain unjustly confined at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) facility in St. Peter — more than a year after they were cleared for conditional release to a three-bedroom group home in Dayton, where they would have lived under 24-hour surveillance. The lawsuit was filed this month in Hennepin County District Court.
The lawsuit is among the first legal challenges in Minnesota to residency restrictions against sex offenders, and could determine the fate of dozens of similar measures across the state. More than 80 localities have enacted such ordinances, amid a growing local backlash against the state’s efforts to return sex offenders to the community.
The restrictions have created a dilemma for the state agency that oversees the MSOP, which is under legal pressure to release more offenders but is running out of community facilities where they can send them. A total of 12 offenders who have been approved for conditional release remain stuck at the program’s treatment facilities as a large and growing swath of the state becomes off-limits to sex offenders.
“The current situation is untenable,” said Eric Janus, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and author of a book on sex offender laws. “These former offenders are entitled to be released, yet they continue to be held, by local actions that are subverting state law.”
Dayton’s mayor, Tim McNeil, said Tuesday that the city “intends to defend the ordinance to the extent that we can,” but declined to comment further. An attorney for the city said a response to the lawsuit would be filed with the court on Wednesday. . . .
Dayton’s ordinance, passed in October 2016, is unusually broad. Its long list of areas identified as off-limits to convicted sex offenders includes athletic fields, ice skating facilities, bowling alleys, dance academies and public libraries. The ordinance also bans offenders from distributing candy on Halloween, and makes it illegal for them to “leave an exterior porch light on” to attract trick-or-treaters, among other restrictions.
Attorneys for the offenders argue that the ordinance is superseded by Minnesota’s sex offender law, which regulates how and when a person civilly committed as a sex offender should be returned to the community. Under the law, offenders have a right to petition for release and state panels have the sole authority to approve or reject them, according to the suit.
“By restricting them from living in the normal world,’’ Holly said, the city of Dayton “is making it impossible to follow court orders and the appropriate state rules and regulations.”
Criminal justice researchers have found that geographic-based residency restrictions are largely ineffective at preventing sex crimes, in part because offenders tend to victimize people they know rather than pursue strangers living in close proximity to them.
In a widely-cited study, research director Grant Duwe at the state Department of Corrections analyzed the case histories of 224 sex offenders who were reincarcerated for a sex crime prior to 2006. He found that not a single one of their offenses would have been prevented by a residency restriction law. Of the few offenders who contacted a juvenile victim near their homes, none did so near a school, park, playground or other location included in residential restriction laws, he found.
By limiting community options, the ordinances can actually endanger the public by making it more difficult for state correctional facilities to release offenders to stable facilities that offer safe supervision, Duwe said. “There is absolutely no public safety benefit to residency restrictions — none at all,” Duwe said.