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Future of sex offender ordinances in doubt

A number of New Jersey municipalities have passed ordinances restricting where convicted sex offenders may live in town.  One such town, Cherry Hill,passed an ordinance banning offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school, park, religious institution or place where children might gather.  In March, a Superior Court Judge invalidated the ordinance, casting a shadow over the future of such ordinances.

Megan’s Law requires convicted sexual offenders to register with the authorities in the town in which they live.  Failure to do so subjects the offender to criminal penalties.  Many New Jersey municipalities have extended Megan’s Law by passing ordinances that effectively bar convicted sex offenders from town by restricting where they may live in town.  Recently, a Superior Court Judge sitting in Camden County invalidated such an ordinance.

Cherry Hill had passed an ordinance prohibiting offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school, park, religious institution or similar place where children might gather.  The penalties for a violation included imprisonment, community service and fines.

Two Cherry Hill men were prosecuted and convicted in municipal court for violating the ordinance.  They appealed to the Superior Court.  The Superior Court judge who heard the appeal held that Megan’s Law pre-empts the ordinance, and that the ordinance was overly broad.  That is, he found that it was an extreme intrusion on the rights of offenders and punished offenders a second time for their crimes.

Howes & Howes certainly understands need to prosecute sexual offenders, and supports the protection of victims and of the public.  However, we can meet the needs of public safety rationally and without sending former sexual offenders to the modern equivalent of leper colonies.  Many offenders offended deep in the past, have paid their debt to society and have gone on to lead productive lives in their jobs and with their families.

The ruling invalidates the Cherry Hill ordinance at issue.  It does not invalidate other ordinances.  However, the decision casts doubt on whether other municipalities will be able to enforce similar ordinances.  It was a courageous decision.


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