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Allegheny presses to restrict where sex offenders live

| Tuesday, April 7, 2009

State laws limiting where sex offenders can live have withstood legal challenges, but Allegheny County's law is unlikely to survive legal scrutiny, several experts say.

The county plans to appeal a federal judge's March ruling striking down the law that prohibited sex offenders from living near schools and other places children gather. But the District Attorney's Office, Sen. Jane C. Orie and the State Association of Township Supervisors have advised county officials that the chances of a reversal are slim.

Local laws can conflict with pre-existing state law, the reason U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster ruled against Allegheny County. Courts in New Jersey and New York have struck down local laws in those states, and legal experts say that trend is likely to continue.

"(County officials) might want to even reconsider the expenditure of taxpayers' money to pursue this because the law is fairly clear," Duquesne University law professor Joseph Sabino Mistick said. "However, I doubt they will do that because of the public clamor for this."

The county is appealing in part because of how much public support the law has, said Kevin Evanto, spokesman for County Executive Dan Onorato. The county ordinance passed without opposition in October 2007, part of a nationwide trend to strengthen sex-offender laws.

About 30 states, but not Pennsylvania, have laws explicitly limiting where offenders can live. Another 162 Pennsylvania municipalities have them, but Allegheny is the only county, according to the state Sexual Offenders Assessment Board.

At least two Pennsylvania towns have added restrictions on where sex offenders can live since Lancaster's March 20 ruling. Buffalo in Washington County became the latest April 1 when it prohibited sex offenders from living within 1,500 feet of schools, parks and other places children gather.

Allegheny County wants to prevent anyone convicted of a sex crime from moving within about a half-mile of child care and community centers, county parks and schools. The penalty is up to 45 days in jail and $500 in fines, but county officials agreed not to enforce the law after six sex offenders challenged it in court.

"The potential benefit of this ordinance, providing additional protection to kids, yes, that's something we believe is something worthy of pursuing," Evanto said. "People can sit and play armchair quarterback on these issues, but that's why you actually appeal and go to court."

Judges have ruled state laws generally don't impinge on travel rights, due process and other constitutional rights. Several states expressly allow local limits on where sex offenders can live, said Corey Rayburn Yung, an assistant professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

But that has not been a priority for Pennsylvania legislators, several said last week. Orie, R-McCandless, considered residency restrictions when she successfully pushed for tougher sex offender laws in 2005 and 2006, but she said she specifically removed them from her legislation to avoid court challenges.

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