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Law of the West

It is that time of year again when the communities in the rural West send their representatives to the State Capitol to solve all the problems of the current day. The legislatures in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska are back in session. These men and women that give willing of their time and resources to serve in our state houses deserve our praise and admiration. Universally, they are well-intentioned and they try to improve our communities through their efforts.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that their good intentioned acts of legislation have devastating collateral effects. Such may be the case in Colorado with House Bill 1179, introduced by Representative Balmer of Arapahoe County. The Bill has at its core a lofty and noble purpose: to protect our children from being preyed upon by sexual predators. It tries to accomplish its goal by establishing a zone of 1,000 feet around any public school, private school, licensed daycare center or playground from which a sex offender is excluded from living or working.

Now, let’s think about this. I certainly want my children and grandchildren to live, learn and play in safe communities; but, even a sex offender has to live somewhere. This bill if allowed to become law reinstitutes that medieval punishment of banishment.

Within an urban center, it is difficult to find either a place of employment or a residence which is not within 1,000 feet of a daycare center, school or playground. In fact, many employers operate daycare facilities on their premises. Further, consider in your own neighborhood the number of stay-at-home moms that are licensed to provide daycare ” seems to be one on every block. The nearly ? mile radius this Bill establishes as an exclusion zone may individually seem inconsequential. However, when these zones are placed upon each and every protected site within a given community, the cumulative effect is to exclude sex offenders from working or living in an urban or suburban setting. Ironically, the remaining areas in a community in which an offender can reside logically will become more concentrated with sex offenders; arguably, making those areas less safe for children.

The law will also operate to potentially take property rights from sex offenders or their families. An offender who owns his or her home may be barred from returning to it by the operation of the law, even if it wasn’t involved in the criminal act.

Now, I have to admit, that these laws aren’t new and in Iowa there is a similar law, and the exclusion zone is 2,000 feet. When that law was challenged in Court, the Federal Appeals Court for the Eighth Circuit gave it the “green light.” The Court said that such laws are not an additional form of punishment, but rather are a valid form of civil regulation rationally related to the protection of children ” a proper governmental goal. After reviewing various other constitutional challenges, the Court concluded that the government could properly enact such residency restrictions.

But, just because government can do something constitutionally, we need to ask the question, “should it?” The application of what some like to call “the law of unintended consequences” ” when a good action has either unforeseen or unanticipated results that aren’t so good, seems to be relevant. Those of us in rural communities should think for a moment. With the law basically banishing sex offenders from the urban and suburban areas, the only place left for these persons to try to live is, where … the rural communities in the state.

Typically, as you move out away from our urban and suburban centers, there are less social services available. Sex offenders, if they are not to re-offend, require access to appropriate psychological services. Adequate supervision is critical to successfully returning sex offenders to the community and there are few parole and probation officers once you leave the confines of the City.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the intent with which I expect this Bill was offered. No one is against making our communities safer for our children; but, this is simply a law that has some pretty severe unintended consequences for those of us in the rural parts of Colorado.

Regardless of your personal beliefs on this issue, keep an eye out toward the State House. The Legislature is in session!

The information provided in this column is based upon general principles of law and should not be relied upon in any manner. It is not the intent of this column, its author, publisher or the Fence Post to provide legal advice to any person. You should address specific legal questions to your family lawyer. In Wyoming, the State Bar can refer you to competent lawyers in your community by calling (307) 634-7823. In Colorado, call the Metropolitan Lawyer Referral Service at (303) 831-8000. Readers in Nebraska can receive referrals from the State Bar Association by calling 1-800-742-3005.


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