RI ACLU fights law on sex offenders near schools
PROVIDENCE, R.I.—A state law that bars registered sex offenders from living within 300 feet of a school is unconstitutional because it is too vague and overly broad, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Monday as it filed a lawsuit on behalf of three men who have been told by police they must move or face arrest.
The lawsuit was brought against the state on behalf of two developmentally disabled men and one veteran who their lawyer and supporters say would lose their housing and possibly become homeless if forced to move. They also said the law is counterproductive because it would have the effect of taking away the stability and support they need to keep them out of trouble.
The developmentally disabled men, Dennis Gesmondi and Dallas Huard, live in Warren Manor II, a Providence assisted-living facility that provides mental health and substance abuse treatment. Gesmondi, 54, was convicted of sexual assault in 2008. Huard, 38, was originally charged with child molestation but pleaded no contest to an amended charge in 1996. His lawyer did not immediately know the amended charge.
George Madancy, 65, lives in an apartment in Providence. He was convicted in 2006 of possessing child pornography.
A law passed by the General Assembly in 2008 makes it a felony for a registered sex offender to live within 300 feet of any public or private school. Those who do so face up to five years in prison.
The police department last month ordered the men to move out of their homes within 30 days or face arrest following a media report that several registered sex offenders were living within 300 feet of schools.
The lawsuit, filed by attorney Katherine Godin, asks a Superior Court judge to stop the evictions. It says the law isn't specific about how to measure 300 feet -- whether from the school's door, the property line or something else. By some measures, she said, the men would not be living within 300 feet of a school. It also doesn't define what a school is, Godin said.
"If you're living near a program that teaches yoga classes or cooking classes, you could potentially be living near a school," she said.
The lawsuit argues the law should not apply retroactively to anyone who committed an offense before July 2, 2008.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said his office is reviewing the lawsuit.
Supporters of the three men said that if they are forced to leave their homes, it may be worse for society in the long run.
"From the perspective of community safety, they are in the right place," said Brian Adae, a lawyer for the Rhode Island Disability Law Center. "Using a vague 300-foot provision of state law to essentially evict them from a place that supports their stability is entirely at odds with the overall goals of sex offender laws and rehabilitation."
Chris Stephens, president of NRI Community Services, which runs Warren Manor, said five of the 19 men who live there had been told by police that they had to leave because they are sex offenders, although there are two additional sex offenders who live there. He said the residents are typically assigned to live there by the Veterans Administration or state probation and parole officers and the men in question have always registered with police and kept in touch with their parole officers.
At a minimum, he said, he hoped the lawsuit would keep police from arresting people who were placed there by the state.
"These folks need someplace to live," Stephens said. "Subjecting them to arrest and eviction is not only contrary to their medical needs and increases their risk of homelessness, but it categorically does nothing to make the community safer."
A hearing on the lawsuit was scheduled for Friday morning in Superior Court.