Sex-offender residency restrictions challenged by ACLU ruled unconstitutional

Rules against sex offenders living near schools or other places children congregate are generally popular. But a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that regulations put in place by the City of Englewood are so restrictive that they effectively ban such people from living in the community, and are therefore unconstitutional.

The case was brought by attorneys working for the ACLU, whose Mark Silverstein argues that striking down the law, an action that may undermine others like it, can actually lead to communities being safer.

"When community after community adopts these kinds of not-in-my-backyard restrictions, the next town may adopt the same restrictions," Silverstein says. "That drives offenders so far underground that they wind up being disconnected from supervision, treatment and management."

The suit was brought on behalf of Stephen Ryals. In 2001, according to the ruling, on view below, Ryals had a consensual sexual relationship with a high-school student he coached on a soccer team. He subsequently pleaded guilty to a criminal attempt to commit sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust and was sentenced to seven years probation -- but when he violated the sentence's terms by continuing to see the young woman, he was sent to prison for two years.

Ryals was released in April 2003, completed his parole in 2004, and has registered as a sex offender as required since then. Otherwise, he's not under any current state supervision, and in October 2014, he'll be able to petition the court where he was convicted to discontinue registration entirely.

In the meantime, he and his wife purchased a home in Englewood circa 2012, not knowing about the community's ordinance, which makes it a crime for anyone convicted of certain sex offenses to live within 1,000 feet of a licensed day care center, swimming pool, recreation center, walk-to-school route, recreational trail or property next to a bus stop, or within 2,000 feet of a school, playground or park.

These limits cover lots of territory. "We had a mapping expert analyze the restrictions with a map of Englewood," Silverstein says, "and it barred sex offenders from 99 percent of the city."

Was Englewood's modest size a factor? Not really, Silverstein believes. In his view, "even if the town were larger, one would expect that there would also be more schools, more parks, more playgrounds, more bus stops, more properties near a recreational trail."

U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson agreed that Englewood's restrictions went too far, in part because of the impact such restrictions can have on neighbors. Indeed, as the ruling points out, Englewood's limits were put in place back in 2006 very shortly after nearby Greenwood Village had passed sex-offender-residency regulations of its own.

"Ordinances such as Englewood's can encourage other cities to adopt similar restrictions to keep the sex offenders out," he wrote. "Englewood's quick action to bar its doors after Greenwood Village did so is an example of the domino effect that this type of ordinance can have. As one city sees its neighboring cities adopt restrictions, local legislatures may start 'scrambling to outmaneuver each other with highly restrictive ordinances designed to banish registered offenders from their communities.'"

As such, Silverstein says, Judge Jackson ruled that "Englewood cannot enforce the ordinance in its present form."

The ruling doesn't automatically require other Colorado communities with their own sex-offender residency restrictions, including Greenwood Village, Castle Rock, Lone Tree, Commerce City and Greeley, to toss them out and start over. But it does suggest that if the regulations are challenged, they may well lose.

Beyond that, though, "the legislature has changed the state's Sex Offender Management Board with developing uniform, statewide practices and standards for the treatment and management of convicted sex offenders," Silverstein says. "And one of the things this board has done is analyzed the question of residency restrictions and issued a white paper explaining all the policy reasons why communities shouldn't adopt these kinds of restrictions" -- among them, that such rules "reduce the availability of housing and interfere with the goal of reintegrating sex offenders back into the community with both treatment and supervision."

The legislature "has recognized the importance of not only dealing with sex offenders in terms of probation and imprisonment, but also when they get out of prison," Silverstein continues. "And the board believes that local residency restrictions actually undermine their efforts to make communities more safe."

Here's the Englewood ruling.

ACLU-Englewood Sex Offender Ruling

More from our Follow That Story archive circa June: "Marijuana-magazines-as-porn law target of new lawsuit -- from booksellers and ACLU."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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