Judge ponders Halloween-related sex offender law

Monday, October 27, 2008 | 3:51 p.m. CDT; updated 4:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 27, 2008

ST. LOUIS — A federal judge on Monday raised serious concerns about a new state law that restricts the behavior of convicted sex offenders on Halloween night, saying it lacked clarity and could cause confusion both for sex offenders and those charged with enforcing the law.

U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson heard arguments in a case brought by four sex offenders. She granted an injunction against enforcing some provisions of the law for the four plaintiffs, but was still deciding whether to apply the injunction statewide.

The law approved by the legislature in May and signed by Gov. Matt Blunt in June requires that sex offenders avoid all Halloween-related contact with children from 5 to 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 31. It requires them to remain inside their homes with the outside lights off, and post a sign saying that they have no candy. A violation is a misdemeanor with a potential punishment of up to a year in jail.

Chris Quinn, representing Attorney General Jay Nixon and Blunt, said the law is aimed at protecting children on a night when many of them visit the homes of strangers, sometimes without their parents alongside.

"Sex offenders pose a risk of re-offending that's higher than anyone else," Quinn said during the four-hour hearing.

Jackson found no fault with the provision requiring sex offenders to keep their outdoor lights off. She also agreed there was no lack of clarity in the requirement for a sign that reads, "No candy or treats at this residence."

But other aspects were too broad, she said. For example, can a sex offender have contact with his or her own children on Halloween? Passing out candy is clearly prohibited, but what else constitutes "Halloween-related activity?" What if the sex offender planned to be out of town on Halloween — technically, he or she would not be inside the home as the law requires.

The law also allows sex offenders to leave home on Halloween night if there is "just cause" such as work or an emergency, but Jackson criticized the measure for failing to more clearly spell out what "just cause" is.

The vagueness of the law would cause confusion not only for the sex offender, but for police and prosecutors, Jackson said. She cited a letter sent out by the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department to registered sex offenders in that southeast Missouri county. She said that letter referred to the "Halloween season," potentially meaning police might try to enforce the law on days other than Oct. 31. That's clearly not the intent of the law, she said, but an example of what can happen when law enforcers are left to their own interpretation.

The injunction hearing stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Attorney Dave Nelson called the requirements of the law a "scarlet letter" for sex offenders. He said the law also results in additional punishment by requiring what amounts to "house arrest" one day each year.



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