April 25, 2011
Law researcher suggests amending sex offender laws to improve viability
A University of Iowa legal researcher suggests the Iowa legislature modify the state law that restricts where convicted sex offenders can visit before the whole law is thrown out as unconstitutional.
Jacquelyn M. Meirick, a third-year student at the UI College of Law, said the 2009 law is overly broad, vague and interferes with the offenders' fundamental rights. The law prohibits sex offenders from visiting schools, parks, libraries or "any other place primarily intended for minors."
"Without specific language detailing where sex offenders may and may not go, this new legislation could produce confusion for prosecutors and inconsistent results for offenders," Meirick writes in her article, "Through the Tiers," published in the March issue of the Iowa Law Review. She said the new exclusion-zone statute in the law imposes stricter and farther-reaching limits on some offenders, making it susceptible to legal challenge.
She said that when reviewing similar legislation, appeals courts have generally upheld the rights of people -— whether sex offenders or not -— to, for instance, travel or freely associate. In its own decisions, the Iowa Supreme Court has laid out three requirements that such laws must meet to conform with the constitution -— the law must explain the prohibited conduct, it must not prohibit constitutionally protected activities, and cannot allow for arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement.
The 2009 law establishes a 300-foot zone around certain locations where children are frequently present and prohibits offenders from entering that zone. However, she said many places that fall within the exclusion zone also host public and civic activities, such as concerts, religious activities, town hall meetings or voting locations. Since offenders have a right to participate in many of those activities, Meirick said the law may be in violation of the court's requirements.
She said the law is also vague in that it doesn't define what is meant when it says "any place that is intended primarily for the use of minors." For instance, is an employer with an on-site child-care center for employees' children off limits? Or a fast food restaurant with an indoor play area? A beach or municipal swimming pool if children aren't present? She said the law simply doesn't say.
Given this vagueness, she said the law's wording leaves too much room for interpretation in the hands of law enforcement and allows them to enforce the law in ways that could be discriminatory or arbitrary.
"Overzealous interpretation of the catch-all provision gives broad discretion to punish some individuals but not others," she writes.
Meirick said that while the law does allow offenders to visit these areas with advance written permission from authorities, it's vague on the guidelines and does nothing to guarantee they will receive that permission to do something they have the right to do, such as vote. To ensure the law can pass constitutional tests, she suggests the legislature amend the law to broaden the number of people who can give permission. Currently such people are limited to school, child-care and library administrators. She suggests expanding the right to parole officers, for instance.
She said the law should also be more specific in defining the kinds of places where offenders are prohibited from entering if minors are present, and which places are not.
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