There are more than 87,000 registered sex offenders in the State of Texas. Registration requirements in Texas are strict. Sex offenders are required by law to provide the public with virtually every aspect of their personal life: Social Security number, driver’s license number, height, weight, eye color, date of birth, most recent color photograph, any professional or occupational licenses they may hold, fingerprints, current address (that must always be updated), offense for which they were convicted, the date of that offense, the sentence imposed, the age of their victim, location and name of place of employment, schools or colleges being attended, and a host of other local requirements (many of which are patently unconstitutional).
Some of the local registration requirements include residency zones which can have the effect of forcing the offender to live hours away from family and loved ones.
That is certainly what it has meant for many rural Texas registrants over the last five years. But lawyers at Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, a non-profit organization that describes itself as fighting for common sense and research based policies, are trying to change that by fighting for the rights of registrants who simply want to live peacefully in their hometowns.
How is the group approaching this controversial issue?
The group has issued threats of lawsuits against small Texas towns imposing illegal and unconstitutional restraints on registered sex offenders unless they change these requirements.
Towns with populations of fewer than 5,000 people have different rules governing registered sex offenders than more populous areas. Larger towns and cities are run by “local law” while smaller communities are considered “general law” communities.
That matters, because in 2007 then-Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a statement saying general law towns do not have the constitutional authority to adopt sex offender ordinances. Some general law towns, however, have ignored this ruling and have created restrictive laws against sex offenders anyway.
Now, Texas Voices for Reason and Justice are calling some of these communities to task – and it’s having an effect.
Not Worth the Suit
When Texas Voices for Justice and Reason approached Rhome Mayor Michelle Pittman about a lawsuit earlier this year, Pittman decided it was best that her town repeal the ordinance. Financially, a lawsuit could have a devastating impact on such a small town. While some citizens have been skeptical of the ordinances being repealed, officials respond that a lawsuit will do more harm than good.
Denton attorney Robert Gladden, who is working on filing the lawsuits with Texas Voices for Justice and Reason, believes that there are 45 Texas towns that could be affected by their size and could face future lawsuits.
Twenty-three towns have taken action to prevent lawsuits and repealed local sex offender ordinances. Those cities include: Orchard, Archer City, Oak Ridge, Hollywood Park, Shiner, Hamlin, Hubbard, Van Horn, Justin, Mount Enterprise, Pottsboro, Whitewright, Woodville, Cottonwood Shores, and Winter.
Additionally, the following cities have recently been notified of upcoming lawsuits: West Lake Hills, Mount Vernon, Winona, Oak Point, Fulton, Farmersville, Brazoria, Meadows Place, Alvarado, Argyle, Ponder, Westworth Village, and Hickory Creek.
Restrictions for Registrants Go Over the Line
Why are lawsuits being threatened?
Because while ordinances forbidding sex offenders on the state register from living within 1,500-2,000 feet of a school or playground may seem like a good way to protect kids in communities with less than 5,000 people, the restriction has the effect of forcing registrants out of the community. They literally must move away from their friends, family members, and other people in their support network.
Convicted sex offenders face ostracism from mainstream society and encounter serious difficulty finding employment. Ordinances that sever offenders from positive influences can place a major roadblock in their path to recovery and rehabilitation.
Besides this, more restrictive laws can actually lead to increased law-breaking and drain law enforcement resources trying to stop it.
According to Texas Voices for Reason and Justice’s Executive Director Mary Sue Molnar, sex offenders who cannot find a proper, legal place to live in their home town will less likely register.
Failing to register with the state is considered a federal crime, which means that these offenders are putting themselves at risk by breaking the law.
If sex offenders are not registered, law enforcement cannot effectively track them. And when they are apprehended, the ensuing charges and court costs will expend valuable tax revenues.
Repealing harsh ordinances in general law cities allows for more transparency and cooperation between law enforcement and convicted sex offenders.
It’s Not Just a Texas Problem
Texas is not the only state using lawsuits to balance appropriate consequences and constitutional rights for sex offenders.
- In Illinois, five “John Does” and “Jane Does” recently filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court asking to repeal the state’s vague and unconstitutional sex offender statutes.
- Earlier this year, a bill requiring sex offenders to get a special marking on their passports was signed into law. It was challenged, but a federal judge blocked the challenge in April.
- In 2014, California Reform Sex Offender Laws filed lawsuits that led to 38 cities revoking their harsh sex offender statutes.
Law enforcement and concerned citizens alike are beginning to question the severity and restrictiveness of these laws. With the help of an experienced sex crimes lawyer, non-profit groups, and activism, sex offenders trying to reenter mainstream society where they can live as normal, productive citizens will not have to live in fear of future incarceration or being uprooted from their homes.