California Supreme Court Overturns Sex Offender Residence Restrictions

A 2,000-foot rule approved by voters can make finding a legal home nearly impossible.


California Supreme Court

Today the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the residence restrictions automatically imposed on sex offenders by state law are unconstitutional, violating fundamental rights protected by the 14th Amendment. At issue was the Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act (a.k.a. Jessica's Law), which was approved by voters as Proposition 83 in 2006. The law prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, without regard to the nature of the crimes they committed or the threat they currently pose. Four sex offenders on parole in San Diego County challenged that rule, arguing that it makes finding a legal residence nearly impossible and cannot be justified on public safety grounds.

The state Supreme Court agreed, noting that the 2,000-foot rule excludes 97 percent of the land zoned for multifamily housing in San Diego County. Writing for the court, Justice Marvin Baxter said such an onerous burden, imposed without individual evaluation, cannot be justified even under the highly deferential "rational basis" test, which requires only that a law be rationally related to a legitimate government interest:

Blanket enforcement of the residency restrictions against these parolees has severely restricted their ability to find housing in compliance with the statute, greatly increased the incidence of homelessness among them, and hindered their access to medical treatment, drug and alcohol dependency services, psychological counseling and other rehabilitative social services available to all parolees, while further hampering the efforts of parole authorities and law enforcement officials to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate them in the interests of public safety. It thus has infringed their liberty and privacy interests, however limited, while bearing no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators, and has violated their basic constitutional right to be free of unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive official action.

The court said residence restrictions are still permissible as a condition of parole, "as long as they are based on the specific circumstances of each individual parolee."

This decision is a welcome repudiation of residence restrictions that voters and legislators have imposed on sex offenders with little or no regard to their fairness or practical impact. Such restrictions, which often apply even if an offender's crime had nothing to do with children, can be so extensive that entire cities are effectively off limits. In Miami local residence restrictions gave rise to a colony of more than 70 sex offenders who lived under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a bridge that crosses Biscayne Bay.

Iowa's 2,000-foot rule was so restrictive that the state legislator who proposed it later worried that "if you draw a map, pretty soon you can make it so no area in town is available to live in." In 2007 Georgia's residence restrictions, which mandated the relocation of sex offenders dying in nursing homes and forced repeated moves as formerly legal homes became illegal, were unanimously overturned by the state Supreme Court, which observed that "there is no place in Georgia where a registered sex offender can live without being continually at risk of being ejected." New York's Sexual Assault Reform Act has led to similar problems.