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Finally! A decision in the Rhode Island residency restrictions case

In 2015, the ACLU of Rhode Island, on the heels of an announcement that the residency restriction distance for certain registrants would be increased from 300 to 1.000 feet, filed a suit to block the move and asked for a temporary restraining order, which was granted and has remained in place until now. NARSOL contributed to the case financially and issued this press release.

That was seven and a half years ago. The wheels of justice do indeed grind slowly, and sometimes they don’t grind at all, but this time they did. The new statute was found by the court to be unconstitutional due to being void for vagueness.

This is the ACLU press release:

Federal judge rules unconstitutional state’s residency restriction for sex offenders

March 16, 2023 – 3p.m. A federal court today ruled unconstitutional a state law that makes it a crime for certain sex offenders to reside within 1,000 feet of a school, finding that the statute would require individuals subject to it to guess whether they were in compliance with it, and potentially face a criminal trial if they guessed wrong.

In a 25-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell, Jr. held that since “neither an ordinary person nor law enforcement could understand the statutory language that attempts to define the boundaries of residences and schools,” the residency prohibition is unconstitutionally void for vagueness. ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys challenged the statute when it was first enacted in 2015, and it has been subject to a preliminary injunction barring its enforcement since then.

The law provides for measuring the 1,000 foot distance “from the nearest boundary line of the real property supporting the residence of the person to the nearest boundary line of the real property that supports or upon which there exists a school.” ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Lynette Labinger and John MacDonald noted the complete lack of clarity as to what property “supporting” a school was applicable in measuring the distance — what about spaces like playing fields, playgrounds, or parking lots? In fact, the court noted, the state has given differing interpretations of what that language means over the years, and most recently argued that it applies to any real property — even if not contiguous to the school — if it is “typically used by students for school purposes,” and that those determinations needed to be made on a case-by-case basis. In pointing out the problem with this approach, the court noted:

“After all, if the State’s process involved law enforcement, school officials, and attorneys collaborating to make precise individualized determinations on these boundaries, how could an ordinary person ever be expected to faithfully follow this process, let alone come to the same conclusion about where these boundaries lie? Not to mention that these difficulties facilitate arbitrary and inconsistent enforcement.”

Both nationally and locally, correctional administrators‚ experts involved in the treatment of sex offenders, victims’ rights groups, and advocates for the homeless have opposed sex offender residency laws as being ineffective, counter-productive, and potentially more, rather than less, harmful to public safety. The law applies to all Level 3 sex offenders, even if their crime was committed against an adult, and even though the overwhelming majority of sex offenses are committed against people the offender knows, not strangers.

Read the remainder of the RI ACLU’s press release here.


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This post was written by someone, or multiple people, within NARSOL.

24 Thoughts to “Finally! A decision in the Rhode Island residency restrictions case”

  1. AvatarDerek

    Well that’s a court ruling in the right direction

  2. AvatarEmma

    Residency restrictions have been granted unconstitutional in Rhode Island but. It’s constitutional in other States?

    1. AvatarNorthEastPA

      Exactly, how can residency restrictions be constitutional in one state but like RI now not be constitutional? I don’t get it!

      Penn, where I live is considering residency restrictions. We don’t have them now. Even I, one who was once on the registry here in Penn but have since been removed is concerned. With the way things go if they do invoke registration restrictions on SOers here in Penn how do I know they won’t make it even for ones once on the registry like me.

      This is nuts. I have been off the registry in PA since 2018 and want to travel out west for a vacation for 10 days. I want to see the Grand Canyon, Vegas etc. How on earth do I plan a trip not knowing what the states registry conditions are. I have to spend hours reviewing them because I want to drive from Arizona, to Vegas, to California etc during my vacation. How do I figure out what the restrictions are of each state I travel through? I was told that even though I am off the Penn registry I am still obligated to register in other states as I travel through them – what the He!!? I am confined to my state of Penn for the rest of my life even if I want to travel the USA. I just don’t get it!!!!????

    2. AvatarS

      The law may be unconstitutional, as its written, or its entirety. If they change the wording it could be deemed constitutional. Every state has their own laws, which may be written differently.

    3. AvatarWC_TN

      I am no legal beagle by any stretch, but these residency restrictions have to be fought state by state. That means P.F.R.s in those states have to come together, come up with funding, and find a lawyer who is intimately familiar with the state’s sex offense laws and absolutely knows how to “thread the needle” and craft the correct argument that will gain proper traction with the court. Sadly, there are some attorneys out there who could litigate these cases but won’t either because they agree with the laws are too afraid of the public backlash from those who do. A split among circuits can get SCOTUS attention, but right now with the make-up of the current court, do we really want to risk kicking any case up to SCOTUS now? This court would be the least sympathetic to our cause. We don’t want a bad ruling to either get upheld by the Supreme Court or denied cert. Keep in mind the vitriol Ketanji Brown Jackson received simply because she followed the BIPARTIZAN SENTENCING GUIDELINE REPORT FOR NON-PRODUCTION CHILD PORN CHARGES. Look at the bill Sen. Hauley from MO tried to get passed into law right after her confirmation putting harsh mandatory minimums on child porn consumption.

      The current climate in SCOTUS would probably be to do whatever legal gymnastics would be called for to uphold everything about our draconian registry regime. A conservative majority is the worst case scenario for our efforts to reform the laws. I say for now we should let bad rulings in the lower courts stand because if they get kicked up the chain and get upheld, the bad ruling affects more and more people the higher the appeal goes.

    4. AvatarZom

      Residency restriction remain in place in Rhode Islannd. A 300’ barrier still exist of all offenders

  3. AvatarMike

    My read of the ruling is that they didn’t really say that residency restrictions all together are unconstitutional but rather the way the law was written was too vague in definition of what constitutes a boundary. All lawmakers have to do is rewrite the law to be more clear and restrictions will be put back in place. Not as great of news as it seems.

    1. AvatarWC_TN

      My thoughts exactly and that’s what I’m afraid of. The state gets a bad ruling? They just go back and legislate their way around it and the way the court rulings are written, it gives the state the roadmap to follow to make the new law even more impervious to legal challenges.

  4. AvatarMp

    Thank you ACLU and Narsol for your involvement. If it is due to vagueness, then what is stopping them from re-writing the statue? As the article states that was the first step in this suit and they won on that in a list of reasons so I will take a win when we get it, but it concerns me they will just come back. Hopefully they just won’t bother and see it will just end up back in court. And the legislators have an out…..already over sued over it.

    It is still shocking to me how little rehabilitation/stability they really want with a crime(s) they deem the worst with their broad brush.

  5. AvatarObviouslyAnonymous

    I understand why each state law has its own wording, therefore must be tried individually in a high court, but it could and probably would take a lifetime for every state and municipality to work their way through the courts. I wish it would have a federal law that governs all states, and especially, municipalities.

    As I always say, ‘if a person is desperate, they may commit desperate acts. Sometimes desperation reaches a bad enough level, then any act can seem acceptable.’ This goes for any situation, not just sex offenders.

  6. AvatarAj

    To think it took the courts only 8 years to figure it out. Again, a small gain in a very very long war. Even that gain, is now being hashed over by some politicians to see if it can be reversed. Over 40 years i have watched the B.S. throughout the land, and i see a lot of wheels just spinning in mud.

  7. AvatarTom

    You would think that the same rationale would apply to elimination of the 300’ restriction as well.

  8. AvatarDustin

    I’m not a gambler, but I’m willing to bet the RI statute will be rewritten before the end of the year to be “more clear.” I’d also bet that the legislative “clarification” will be every bit as ambiguous as the statute it replaces. I know that’s horribly pessimistic, but we’ve seen it happen too many times.

    The only real answer is to abolish the registry en totem. Footholds have been established in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and more efforts need to be geared toward abolishment rather than the bits-and-pieces approach taken to date. Every small victory like this is negated by a new law or rule (often worse than its predecessor) and the cycle resumes. You can’t get rid of weeds by removing a leaf every now and then; you have to take it out by the root.

  9. AvatarJJJJ

    These types of laws target a small, hated and feared minority with vague dictates that are impossible to follow and that practically guarantee imprisonment for something as minor as simply loitering or living in the wrong part of town!
    These types of laws target a small group of social undesirables with dictates that are predicated on absurd arguments. The arguments for these laws are absurd because they are based on fears and the resulting hatred that occurs when people rely on irrational fears, rather than reason and facts.
    These laws are similar to Jim Crow laws (from the 1870s through the 1950s) that also targeted a minority – a minority that was often the target of hatred and irrational fears. We saw this, also, in the Nazi ghettoes of the 1930s and 1940s!
    Strong words, I know!
    But justice will prevail (eventually). And this madness, this stain will eventually be erased from our nation!

    1. AvatarWC_TN

      JJJJ, I truly in my “heart of hearts” belive that FEAR is NOT the issue here, but rather blind, unyielding hatred. When someone rapes a woman or even more on point, when someone molests or literally rapes a young child, society’s view is that NOTHING short of a slow, agonizing death serves their idea of justice for the crime. To most of society anything less than a slow, torturous death is justice denied. Those who have these types of offenses are no longer considered members of the human race by a large part of society and in fact, most think we should be stripped of ALL constitutional protections.

  10. AvatarEd

    These outcomes, temporary as they may be, or a step in the right direction and this is why every registered citizen and their supporters should be a paid member of NARSOL and their state affiliate if they have one.

  11. AvatarRichard M

    I wonder why politicians continue to try to get these restrictions enacted when, time after time, they are found to be unconstitutional for a variety of reasons. Now my state, Pennsylvania, has a new 2,500-foot restriction bill under consideration. Ours, if passed, would apparently only apply to those found to be “sexually violent predators,” I suppose politicians believe such folks deserve fewer constitutional protections that other citizens. We’ll see….

    1. AvatarWC_TN

      Because the politicians cater to the blood thirstiest, most vengeful sectors of our society. That’s why. 3 words: IT GETS VOTES.

  12. AvatarTerry

    I think we need to stay open and positive in decisions knowing that every battle we take is a challenge in itself. We know the wheels turn ever so slowly but we are blessed to have this organization and others who help our cause. We need to stay strong and united. Encourage your family to support this organization and our fight.

  13. AvatarDan

    The truth is if these laws got an objective review, almost all of them would be unconstitutional for vagueness. We won such a partial victory here in Michigan a few years back, only to have the new version equally impossible. If all people charged with registry violations could afford $1000 an hour lawyers, and every jury of peers was actually rational open-minded people, it would be so hard to get a conviction on these laws I suspect they’d just quit trying.

  14. AvatarChris B

    So, what happens when they get specific, and it passes?

  15. AvatarFrank Quiroz

    That the law seeks to provide clarification is good news. Thank you to all who contributed to this outcome.

  16. AvatarTim in WI

    Do not go patting anyone on the back. A void by vagueness ruling only encourages a rewrite by Congress. In other words, nothing is fixed.

  17. AvatarDiddu

    It’s a crime to have shelter? These laws are getting out of hand. It’s so obvious they are not there to protect anyone and protect from whom? Most people on the registry are not even a treat. They are there to make it more difficult or in some places impossible to get housing and send you back to prison for simply not able to find a place to live because the law makes it illegal. Looks like a trap.

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