By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007
One of the nation's most aggressive attempts to limit the mobility of convicted sex offenders was struck down yesterday, as the Georgia Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the state's law restricting where they may live.
The roughly 10,000 sex offenders residing in Georgia had been forbidden to live within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, church, school-bus stop or other places where children might assemble. Taken together, the prohibitions placed nearly all the homes in some counties off-limits -- amounting, in a practical sense, to banishment.
"It is apparent that there is no place in Georgia where a registered sex offender can live without continually being at risk of being ejected," the ruling said.
The Georgia law had been considered one of the most comprehensive in the nation, not only for the breadth of its residency limits but also because it covered even the mildest types of sex offender, such as those convicted of having consensual sex acts as high school students.
Proponents say the statute's extraordinary provisions are warranted to protect children. Georgia House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R), one of the sponsors of the legislation, said that he intended to make its restrictions onerous enough that offenders "will want to move to another state." Other states have passed similar laws in recent years.
But rights groups have called the restrictions overbroad, mean-spirited and, by making it harder for offenders to maintain stable lives, counterproductive.
The case that led to yesterday's ruling concerned Anthony Mann, 45, who in 2002 pleaded no contest in North Carolina to "indecent liberties with a child." On the state sex-offender registry, he is not listed as a predator.
A year later, Mann married, and he and his wife purchased a home in Hampton, Ga. He also became the co-owner of a barbecue restaurant.
At the time he and his wife purchased the home, there were no child-care facilities nearby. But one later moved within 1,000 feet of his property line, and, following the law, his probation officer ordered him to move. Mann filed the lawsuit.
In finding the residency restrictions unconstitutional, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that, by forcing a sex offender from his home, the law violated his Fifth Amendment right to be safe from the government "taking" his property.
Mann's attorney, Stephen Bailey Wallace, said his client was "calmly pleased" with the ruling. "The law didn't even pass the smell test," he said. "Under its provisions, a person could be forever moving -- a nomad situation." "What this decision says is we value property rights and the legislature cannot simply snatch them away," said Sarah Geraghty, a staff lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based group that has filed other court actions against the law.
A spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker said his office is reviewing the ruling to see how it might affect future enforcement.
Sexual offenders covered by the law were glad to hear of its demise.
"It was outrageous -- it was ridiculous," said Wendy Whitaker, 28, a registered sex offender whose case had been used as an example by opponents of the law.
When she had just turned 17, Whitaker engaged in a single act of oral sex with a boy at school. The boy was 15.
"The law didn't discriminate between a violent criminal and someone who made a mistake when they were a teenager," she said.
She and her husband have moved three times in the past year because of the law and have finally wound up in South Carolina.
"I don't know that we'll go back," she said. "We're just getting settled again."