Court Decision Could Affect Township Sex Offender Law

HARRISBURG PA – A 2009 law that limited sex offender residency in Lower Pottsgrove (PA) Township, and which at the time won unanimous approval from the Board of Commissioners, may be invalidated by a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision released Thursday (May 26, 2011) regarding a similar ordinance in Allegheny County.

Facing the justice system.

Local sex offender residency laws might be invalidated by Thursday court decision

The court, in what The Associated Press reported as a “strongly worded, 23-page decision” written by Chief Justice Ronald Castille, said the county ordinance is “pre-empted by state laws that balance public safety and the goal of rehabilitation for sex offenders.” Attorneys quoted by The AP said similarly written laws in 150 municipalities across the state – including Lower Pottsgrove – probably would be affected and challenged.

Nearly 11,000 sex offenders are registered with the state police under Pennsylvania Megan’s Law.

Allegheny County’s prohibition against registered offenders living within 2,500 feet of schools, child-care facilities, community centers, public parks or recreational facilities would isolate them in “localized penal colonies” distant from families and old neighborhoods, The AP said Castille wrote in the unanimous opinion.

The Lower Pottsgrove law bars offender residency in any structure within 1,000 feet of those same locales. “We think these are reasonable restrictions that ensure the public’s safety” but also give offenders the ability to live within township borders, Commissioner Jonathan Spadt said when the local law passed. Spadt promoted his support of the law in campaign materials distributed during primary elections earlier this month.

Allegheny County Solicitor Michael Wojcik, who led its legal team, suggested local ordinances that are less stringent or that cover more rural areas might stand up against scrutiny. “It does not strike them all down,” he told The AP. Lower Pottsgrove’s law conceivably could qualify on both counts; it is less restrictive, and the township is, in part, significantly rural.

An American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania legal representative disagreed with Wojcik. The court “sends a pretty clear message,” Edwin J. Strassburger said. Strassburger worked with other attorneys who sued in federal court in Pittsburgh on behalf of six sex offenders affected by Allegheny County’s ordinance.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, according to The AP:

  • Doylestown Township has had a sex offender residency restriction ordinance in place since 2005. Its police chief said the Bucks County adult probation department regularly contacts the township if a registered sex offender wants to live there, and checks to see if the offender’s residence is outside boundaries established by its ordinance. Township police have never arrested or cited anyone for violation of the ordinance, he added.
  • Hatboro adopted an ordinance in 2006 that prohibited sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care facility, but officials learned about court rulings that they believed invalidated their ordinance and have been following the law, council President Marianne Reymer said.

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