WINDSOR LOCKS, Connecticut — Voters decided Tuesday at a town meeting to repeal an 11-year-old ordinance banning people on the sex-offender registry from many public places in town.
The 50-13 vote came after more than an hour of discussion about the “child safety zone” ordinance, which is being challenged in a lawsuit by an anonymous resident and One Standard of Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group for the rights of accused and convicted sex offenders.
The federal lawsuit argues that the ordinance — which bars registered sex offenders from places such as local parks, public schools, the library, the Town Hall gymnasium, and the Senior Center — violates First and 14th Amendment rights. The plaintiff is asking for $10,000 in lawyers’ fees and for the town to repeal the ordinance.
Town Attorney Carl Landolina said Tuesday that the suit was filed by a man who was convicted of sexually assaulting another adult in the 1990s, when they were both in their 20s. He is arguing that the ordinance is too broad, preventing him, now a father, from accompanying his children to schools and parks, although he was not convicted of an offense against a child.
Katherine Rule of Hartford law firm Howd and Ludorf, which has experience representing municipalities in civil rights cases, would represent town in the suit, Landolina said.
Landolina implied that he believes the town likely would lose if the case went to trial.
“I have my own opinions about the ordinance and what a federal court might do, and those of you who know anything at all about the Constitution probably know where my head is thinking,” he said.
Landolina said that the state seems to be moving toward a risk-based sex-offender registry that requires people to register if they are considered likely to repeat the same offense. The current system casts a net over all those convicted.
He said he and Rule considered rewriting the ordinance to be more risk-based, but doing so would be a large undertaking for a small town before state guidelines are in place, he said.
Eight or nine Connecticut towns have ordinances similar to the one in Windsor Locks, meaning about 160 towns do not, Landolina said.
Rule said that if the town lost the case, it likely would pay $425,000 in legal fees for its own defense and another $450,000 for the plaintiff’s legal fees. In civil rights cases, victorious plaintiffs always have their legal fees reimbursed by defendants, Landolina said.
Although some who spoke at the town meeting questioned the constitutionality and the effectiveness of the ordinance, which prescribes a warning the first time an offender is caught and a $99 ticket the second time, others said any step that could jeopardize residents’ safety ought to be firmly rejected.
Some also were concerned when Landolina said there are 25 to 35 registered sex offenders in town.
One resident, Lori Sideravage, took a strong stand against repeal.
“This is not our problem. These people chose their path,” she said. “That is not up to my 11-year-old grandson in Windsor Locks Middle School right now.”
Sideravage, who said she is a lifelong resident of Windsor Locks, encouraged others to “stand firm” in the face of constitutional challenges.
“The First Amendment, the 14th Amendment, this and that — guess what, we live here, we abide by the rules, and if we don’t we go to jail just like anybody else,” she said. “I don’t really care what it costs this town.”
Jennifer Wells, a mother of young children, echoed the idea that repealing the ordinance would jeopardize children’s safety, while Kevin Stone said he did not care if the suit cost the town $1 million. Stone asked First Selectman Christopher Kervick if the proposed repeal was due to only financial concerns.
Kervick responded that there are additional reasons to oppose a blanket policy based on the registry. During his time as a public defender, he said, he represented a high school student whose relationship with his 15-year-old girlfriend became illegal when he turned 18. After facing criminal charges and being forced to register as a sex offender, the man suffered a traumatic brain injury during a suicide attempt, Kervick said with emotion in his voice.
Encouraging others to vote for repeal, Tiffany Tisler, a local resident and a lawyer, said she was “100 percent confident that (the ordinance) will be thrown out” in court.
James Roach encouraged the town to take a balanced approach in the future.
“Most of us feel that with something like this, you’re not facilitating the opportunities for predators to go where they could harm children or other people,” he said. “However, if this is unconstitutional, what’s to stop us from throwing it out to settle it for the least amount of money and then redrafting another one with exceptions in it?”
By Anthony Branciforte
firstname.lastname@example.org Mar 20, 2019