Sex offenders on the sidelines
These days as parents we’re all trained well enough to find sufficiently creepy the 40-year-old guy who stops by the park to play football with a bunch of 1o-year-olds he doesn’t know. Forget if there’s an unattached child running around at a youth league game. It’s the unattached adult we worry about.
This sensitivity, perhaps hypersensitivity, to strange adults (even those who don’t appear, well, strange) might not always be well-placed. But we know from enough viewings of Dateline, how-not-to-molest-children training and sex offender registries that child predators are everywhere, waiting for an opening to buy your child an ice cream and lead him or her to places you don’t even want to think about.
That was the thought when Jeffersonville, Ind., across the Ohio River from Jason Stinson’s Louisville, passed an ordinance in 2007 prohibiting sex offenders from entering city parks. However, the law did allow for offenders to apply for exemptions — say, if they had a kid, their own kid, playing in a game.
Eric Dowdell, convicted in 1996 of sexual battery of a 13-year-old girl, filed for one of those exemptions. But he did something more: he sued the city (with the help of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union). And on Tuesday, the Indiana Court of Appeals, overturning lower court decisions, ruled in Dowdell’s favor by a 2-1 margin.
The basis for that ruling was that Dowdell, as per his sentence, was taken off the Indiana sex offender registry in 2006. According to the Jeffersonville/New Albany News and Tribune, the appeals court majority wrote that Jeffersonville’s ordinance “is unconstitutional as it applies to Dowdell because he served his sentence and completed his requirement to register on the sex offender list before the ordinance was passed.”
Had Dowdell’s case come up a few months ago, he might have lost again. But on April 30, the Indiana Supreme Court, in Wallace v. State of Indiana, overturned the conviction of an Indianapolis man on charges of failing to register as a sex offender because he had been convicted and served his punishment before Indiana’s sex offender registry was in place. The court said applying current law to something that wasn’t an offense at the time violated the Indiana consitution, and the U.S. Constitution spells out explicitly that states can’t pass ex post facto laws, nor can the federal government.
The Indiana appeals court had more criticism that just barring offenders no longer on a registry. From the News Tribune:
While the Court of Appeals’ decision would only apply to people who were no longer required to register as a sex offender when the ordinance was passed, the opinion was critical of the “excessive” steps that must be taken for a convicted offender to receive an exemption.
Chief Judge John Baker described the exemption process as “extraordinarily burdensome and virtually illusory.” He notes that the offender must provide a “legitimate reason” for the exemption and would have to go through the application process each time a new activity arises.
He writes that the offender is required to provide a “plethora of documents” to the judge, and even then, the judge still must find that “good cause” exists for the exemption. Baker wrote that the ordinance never specifies what would constitute “good cause.”
The court also found that by requiring the offender to notify a sponsoring league organization before requesting an exemption, the offender also is exposed to humiliation.
Interestingly, the same appeals court ruled in favor of a Plainfield, Ind., law that barred anyone currently on a sex offender registry (though not those who had formerly been on one) from entering a cit park. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union has appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, and with the Wallace ruling, there’s some sense it could win.
I have to admit, cases like this challenge my usually let-freedom-ring, liberal ideals. Perhaps that’s because I’m dealing with this issue on a more personal level. Three years ago, the father of one of my daughter’s best friends, who lives only a few houses away, was arrested on charges of distributing child pornography. Believe you me, that was not a pleasant conversation with my kids, the one where my wife and I tried to ask a 6-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy if they ever saw anything, um, unusual in the house, or if the neighbor ever did anything, um, strange to them. Fortunately, nothing happened. (Turns out he was a distributor only, not a creator.)
It was an uncomfortable, interminable time as his case would through the court system. Beyond how to negotiate allowing my daughter to play with her friend while staying away from a creep (she had to come right home if he showed up), I also coached his daughter on softball for two seasons. He mostly kept a low profile, knowing that everyone knew what he was accused of doing (it was in the local paper and on the TV news). But usually he would show up in the middle innings, standing away from the crowd, but close enough I could hear his grating voice cheering on his daughter.
I asked a fellow coach, an attorney, what we could do. Clearly, this guy made everyone uncomfortable. Being an attorney, this coach said, well, the guy gets his day in court, and there’s nothing we can do. I glumly accepted he was right, but I also warned him that we shouldn’t be surprised if parents object when he showed up. (Surprisingly, to me, no one registered any sort of formal complaint.)
Now my former neighbor is in jail, serving a two-year sentence. It’s a breath of fresh air, really — at least I know where he is and most importantly, where he isn’t. Both my daughter and her friend still play softball — different teams now, but still the same league. So what happens when he’s released?
I know he’ll be on an offender list. But while I know he’s served his time and probably won’t do anything with parents about, I personally can’t stand the thought of seeing him at games. In particular, I can’t stand to think about what perverted thoughts are going to be on his mind as he watches kids play. Maybe he’ll be rehabbed, but the recidivism rate is high in this sort of crime. I’d be more than happy if there were invisible fencing around every field, and that this guy wore a collar and got his neck zapped if he ever stepped too close.
I guess that’s why we have laws and courts and such — to balance our baser instincts with fairness and sanity. I can understand completely why Jeffersonville isn’t happy to see Eric Dowdell show up for a ballgame. I also can understand why the courts say he can. The whole thing turns my stomach in knots.