The Rhode Island ACLU today filed a lawsuit in R.I. Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of a state law that makes it a felony for any person required to register as a sex offender to reside within 300 feet of any school. Across the country, experts involved in the treatment of sex offenders, as well as victims’ rights groups, have opposed sex offender residency laws as being ineffective, counter-productive, and potentially more, rather than less, harmful to public safety. The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Katherine Godin, is on behalf of three plaintiffs who face potential homelessness if the law is enforced against them.

Two of the plaintiffs, Dennis Gesmondi and Dallas Huard, reside in Warren Manor II, a Providence facility operated by NRI Community Services, a non-profit provider of mental health and substance abuse treatment. The plaintiffs have developmental disabilities and rely on the staff there to assist them with medication, meals and various other daily activities. They have lived at the facility for three or more years. If forced to leave, the complaint alleges, they are “unlikely to find and be placed in a comparable assisted living facility.” They are designated at the lowest level offender classifications, and are not subject to community notification requirements. The third plaintiff, George Madancy, was convicted of a non-contact crime, possession of child pornography. He is a veteran with medical problems that would likely leave him homeless or hospitalized if he is forced to move out of his apartment, also in Providence.

Among the groups that have publicly raised concerns about broad sex offender residency laws, both locally and nationally, are the RI Disability Law Center, the RI Coalition for the Homeless, Day One Rhode Island, the American Correctional Association, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, and the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. A year before the Rhode Island law was adopted, the Rhode Island Sex Offender Management Task Force prepared a draft statement on residency restrictions that noted that “research shows that sex offenders with residential and family stability (which can be disrupted by such restrictions) are less likely to commit new sex offenses.” Shortly after Iowa became the first state in the country to implement a sex offender residency statute, the Iowa County Attorneys Association issued a statement opposing that statute, pointing out that “there is no correlation between residency restrictions and reducing sex offenses against children or improving the safety of children.” Other groups have noted that laws like these perpetuate the myth that most child sex offenses are committed by strangers, when in fact the overwhelming majority are committed by relatives and people the child knows.

Even though the plaintiffs have been in their residences for some time with the full knowledge of probation and police officials, the Providence Police Department notified them last month that if they did not move out within 30 days, they risked being arrested and charged with a felony for violating the statute.

The lawsuit argues that the law violates due process, is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and amounts to improper ex post facto punishment. The lawsuit also notes the extreme confusion that has been generated over determining how to measure the distance between a school and a residence. The ACLU is seeking a court order declaring the statute unconstitutional, and preliminary relief preventing the state from enforcing the law. A hearing on that request is scheduled to be heard Friday morning.

In addition to NRI Community Services, representatives from the RI Disability Law Center and the RI Coalition for the Homeless expressed support for the lawsuit today.

Statements from Participants in the News Conference

Chris Stephens, the President/CEO of NRI Community Services: “Our residents are placed by the Veterans Administration, the RI Corrections Department Office of Probation and Parole, and by other organizations on the recommendation of health care professionals. The State must approve that the resident needs this level of care and support. Without this option many of them would likely be homeless. They are highly conscious of their reporting requirements, their treatment requirements, and their parole requirements. We are concerned that 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.”
RI ACLU volunteer attorney Katherine Godin: “While sex offenders should face reasonable, effective regulations in order to further the government’s interest in public safety, sex offenders in this State face ineffective, ambiguous regulations and requirements that are often arbitrarily and inappropriately enforced. All three plaintiffs in this case made the Sex Offender Community Notification Unit, the Probation Office and/or the Providence Police Department aware of their current residences, and were cleared to live there until a recent media story called their residences into question. Not only was this regulation enacted after they had already been convicted of their crimes, but the law remains unclear to this day as to whether a given residence is in violation of this poorly-worded statute. If legal professionals cannot agree on a consistent interpretation of the statutory language, how is an ‘ordinary citizen’ supposed to know what the law means?”

Brian Adae, staff attorney from the Rhode Island Disability Law Center: “We are particularly concerned about the plaintiffs who are residents of Warren Manor II and other residents there who have disabilities. These men are fortunate to have been receiving the disability-related services and supports they need. With these services and supports, they have been able to comply with everything their community and society expects of them. From the perspective of community safety, they are in the right place. If they are forced to leave Warren Manor, there is currently no similar safe place available to them to meet their disability-related needs. 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.”

Jim Ryczek, executive director of the RI Coalition for the Homeless: “Every Rhode Islander deserves access to safe, affordable housing. Research and best practices, show that treatment, monitoring and access to housing and employment greatly improves the chances of a sex offender succeeding in our communities. We believe the safety of community residents would actually be more compromised if residents of Warren Manor were released into homelessness."