Monday, March 17, 2008

2 towns argue sex offender laws case

TRENTON — A state appellate court heard arguments Wednesday on ordinances that two South Jersey townships adopted to ban convicted pedophiles from living close to places where children congregate.

Lawyers for Cherry Hill and Galloway defended the sex offender residency restrictions as essential to public safety and asserted the townships' governing bodies have the power -- and the obligation -- to enact ordinances that protect their residents.

They cited statistics that show pedophiles who target girls average nearly 20 victims during their lives while those who target boys average 150 victims.

"The risk of these people reoffending and harming our children is so alarming," said Demetrios Stratis, an attorney for Galloway, Atlantic County. "I believe they are all recidivists."

But attorneys representing sex offenders fighting the Cherry Hill and Galloway ordinances and measures like them asserted the residency prohibitions ostracize offenders, which conflicts with Megan's Law, a state law aimed at protecting the public from pedophiles and rehabilitating the offenders.

They cited their own research that shows stopping sex offenders from living near schools, parks, playgrounds and day-care centers in no way decreases recidivism.

"These ordinances create an undue burden," said Lynette Siragusa, a staff attorney with Legal Services of New Jersey.

The three-judge panel led by Judge Mary Catherine Cuff heard the arguments at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton. The panel said it will issue a written decision in the near future. Lawyers said a ruling would likely be released between 30 and 60 days.

The decision will affect an estimated 115 municipalities across New Jersey that have adopted sex offender ordinances. There are many more towns in the state that want to enact such ordinances, but are waiting first for the appellate court decision, Stratis said.

Superior Court Judges John McNeill in Camden County and Valerie Armstrong in Atlantic County struck down the Cherry Hill and Galloway ordinances respectively in early 2007 and ordered the townships to stop enforcing them. The measures barred sex offenders from residing within 2,500 feet of any school, park, playground or day-care center. They were subject to hefty fines, imprisonment and community service if they didn't move within 60 days of receiving a violation notice.

The Superior Court judges said Megan's Law pre-empted the local sex offender ordinances. They also stated the measures punished convicted sex offenders again for their crimes, violated their constitutional rights and treated all offenders the same regardless of their threat level to the community.

The appellate court focused most of its attention Wednesday on whether local sex offender ordinances are at odds with Megan's Law, which intends to protect the public and foster rehabilitation. Cuff, the presiding judge, questioned whether such ordinances infringe on state parole officers, who already must approve where pedophiles live and work.

"What we're basically saying is the two (Megan's Law and the ordinance) work together and are not in conflict. Their purpose is to protect the community," said Walter Kawalec III, who represented Cherry Hill.

Judge Joseph Lisa asked why the townships lumped sex offenders together rather than make case-by-case decisions as is done under Megan's Law.

"All sex offenders are at risk of being recidivists," Stratis said. "We are hereby removing the temptation so they won't re-offend."

Cuff questioned: If every municipality in New Jersey enacted such an ordinance, wouldn't that prohibit sex offenders from living in the state?

Stratis said most of the ordinances don't completely bar pedophiles from towns. For example, they can still live in one-third of Galloway, he noted.

"Effectively they are banned from Cherry Hill," countered Scott Schweiger, a public defender representing two male pedophiles fighting the ordinance. Each of the men assaulted juvenile girls. One of them assaulted a girl under 13 years of age.

Schweiger said offenders have two options in Cherry Hill: an upscale neighborhood of $400,000-plus homes and an empty field.

Frank Corrado, the lawyer for a Richard Stockton College student who can't live on campus because he was convicted of criminal sexual contact as a juvenile, said sex offender ordinances have no termination clauses. By contrast, Megan's Law makes concessions for some juvenile offenders and people who committed one sex offense and went 15 years without committing another, Corrado said.

"These individuals face imminent homelessness. They face loss of their jobs. They face displacement from their loved ones," Siragusa said of sex offenders. "They also face significant financial and emotional stress."

That argument has no validity for Lisa Kmiec, Cherry Hill's solicitor.

"It's a matter of the rights of the innocents versus the rights of the offenders," Kmiec said. "Cherry Hill will be on the side of the rights of innocents every time."

Reach Lisa Grzyboski at (856) 486-2931 or

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