Santa Clarita can no longer limit where all registered sex offenders may live, following a unanimous City Council vote Tuesday that repealed a city ordinance.
However, despite tracking the locations of registered sex offenders, Los Angeles County officials haven’t been enforcing voter-approved restrictions on where sex offenders can live for a number of years.
Proposition 83, which passed in 2006, prohibited registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Subsequently, Santa Clarita enacted a stricter law that added libraries, child care centers, open space, trails and its paseos to that 2,000-foot range, and prohibited sex offenders from living with each other in the same residence or unit of a multi-unit building.
The lack of enforcement dates back to a series of legal challenges surrounding Proposition 83, or Jessica’s Law, that predate a California Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that found residency restrictions in the measure unconstitutional.
In fact, the Sheriff’s Department’s enforcement in Santa Clarita stopped in 2011, four years before the court’s final decision, due to a judge’s decision and several subsequent departmental directives.
A series of challenges
Nearly a decade ago, lower courts in California were flooded by hundreds of paroled sex offenders who sought to legally challenge the residency portion of Jessica’s Law, claiming it made finding a place to live impossible.
The bulk of those challenges centered across Los Angeles and San Diego counties, where about 850 paroled offenders filed petitions in 2010, according to several attorneys who practice law in Los Angeles County but asked not to be named for this story.
In response to the numerous cases, L.A. Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza, who is now director of the county’s Diversion and Reentry Office, issued temporary, countywide orders staying the provision, which took effect Aug. 31, 2010.
After a petition by four registered sex offenders, Espinoza ruled the 2,000-foot restriction unconstitutional Nov. 1, 2010. He didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the former judge concluded in his 10-page ruling that enforcement of the residency restrictions forced sex offenders to choose between becoming homeless or returning to jail, and that 650 offenders had filed petitions in the county at that time.
The ruling, as well as a litany of litigation, made headlines nationwide. L.A. County’s then-5th District Supervisor, Michael Antonovich, was among the decision’s vocal opponents, calling Espinoza’s enforcement ban “stupid and dangerous.”
The enforcement response
While the courts were hearing arguments on these rules and repeals across Southern California, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which are in charge of enforcing Jessica’s Law, abided by memos instructing them to not enforce the proposition.
This included the SCV Sheriff’s Station, which the city of Santa Clarita contracts with L.A. County for law enforcement. “In November 2010, there was a recommendation from Espinoza to police, sheriff’s and L.A. County to cease and desist from enforcing Jessica’s Law,” said Capt. Robert Lewis. “Our department followed suit then and in 2011 based on that recommendation until further adjudication.”
The same was the case with the CDCR, where staff received memos on how to proceed based on court rulings, according to Luis Patino, an agency spokesman.
Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean, who sat on the City Council at the time, said she could not recall the extent of the litigation, but that council members “were kept informed by our city attorney and our Sheriff’s Department.”
The 2015 decision
In 2011, a San Diego County judge ruled that Jessica’s Law violated four registered sex offenders’ constitutional rights, which led CDCR to stop enforcement. A state appeals court upheld the decision, prompting the state Attorney General’s Office to appeal to the California Supreme Court.
On March 2, 2015, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Prop 83 imposed unconstitutional housing limits on paroled sex offenders statewide because it increased homelessness and deprived individuals from accessing services, such as psychological counseling.
Since then, neither law enforcement agencies nor CDCR can enforce residency restrictions.
However, the CDCR retains the statutory authority to enforce “residency restrictions on some parolees on a case-by-case basis, if the parolee’s agent can establish a nexus between the offender, the conviction and the need for such restriction,” Patino said.
Other forms of enforcement continue
This week, City Council members, city staff members and Lewis reiterated the decision wouldn’t change monitoring practices.
“Enforcement has not changed,” said Lewis, referring to Megan’s Law, which requires sex offenders to register their residency information with local law enforcement agencies and allows online public access to that data.
During the City Council meeting, Lewis told council members the Sheriff’s Station registers offenders every Thursday, and conducts address verifications every six months, which is twice as often as required by law.
“We are a wonderful, family-oriented community,” Councilwoman Laurene Weste said Friday, discussing how the city considers safety a priority, “and we will continue to do the very best we can.”