Crime

Think sex offenders can’t live next to parks and schools? That’s not always the case

When an Atascadero sex offender listed on the state’s Megan Law website was charged last month with committing sex crimes against a child, it wasn’t just the disturbing nature of the allegations that stood out.

It was the man’s address.

Fred Raymond Knight II, who previously served prison time for lewd acts against a child under 14, was registered as living directly across the street from Colony Park and one block from the Fine Arts Academy.

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Fred Raymond Knight II, a registered sex offender living in Atascadero, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to three felony charges related to performing sex acts on a child. San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office

Atascadero police records indicate that the most recent allegations against Knight are not related to his proximity to the park where young children play softball and soccer, but the scenario raised the question: Are registered sex offenders allowed to live next to parks and schools?

In California, the short answer is yes.

State voters passed a ballot initiative in 2006 creating “predator-free zones,” which prohibited all convicted sex offenders whose terms of probation or parole include mandatory registration under Megan’s Law from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park “where children gather.”

Local officials say that while the so-called “2,000-foot rule” is still technically on the books, it’s been unenforceable since 2015, when the state Supreme Court found that the residency requirements as applied evenly to all of California’s convicted sex offenders was unconstitutional. The court found the law created a population of homeless sex offenders, hindering their access to medical treatment, drug and alcohol dependency services, counseling and other rehabilitative services.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, state parole and local probation departments no longer enforce a one-size-fits-all standard for where convicted sex offenders may live. Instead, restrictions are now made on a case-by-case basis by the courts, with input from probation and state parole officials.

Once a convicted offender completes their parole or probation, local police departments and Sheriff’s Offices have individual officers or units assigned to the long-term monitoring of “290 registrants” — named after the California Penal Code section including ensuring they are in compliance with any individual restrictions placed by the state.

Local police chiefs said public misperception of where 290 registrants may live is a frequent source of reports and inquiries from concerned residents, but no one who spoke to The Tribune for this article could recall a recent case where the proximity of a sex offender’s residency to a park or school was linked to additional crimes.

‘Oppressive official action’

The California Megan’s Law website currently lists roughly 340 registered sex offenders living in San Luis Obispo County.

A Tribune review of the online map shows at least 36 of those people are registered within a roughly 2,000-foot radius of a school and/or park, with the highest concentration (between four and six registrants) living near Ramona Park in Grover Beach, Fairgrove Elementary School in Arroyo Grande and Santa Rosa Park in San Luis Obispo.

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The California Megan’s Law sex offender database lists 28 residents currently under post-custody supervision for their offenses, including three that appear to live within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Tribune screen grab

In 2006, voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 83 — also known as Jessica’s Law — which added to existing state law making it “unlawful for any person for whom registration is required .... to reside within 2,000 feet of any public or private school, or park where children regularly gather.”

The new restrictions were enforced by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as well as local county-level probation departments depending on whether the offender served a sentence in county jail or state prison.

But it had an unintended consequence: the creation of a population of homeless sex offenders driven to the streets simply because no available housing existed outside the “predator-free zones.” Unlike registrants who maintain stable housing, offenders who register as transient require more supervision by local law enforcement, are found out of compliance more often and are less likely to engage in mental health or substance abuse treatment.

In San Diego County, a petition filed in Superior Court on behalf of four registrants on active parole argued that the restrictions, when applied indiscriminately, was unconstitutional. The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper subsequently reported in 2009 that more than 70 percent of its registered sex offenders were in violation of the law.

The trial court agreed, but also concluded that state parole should retain its statutory authority to impose special conditions on sex offender parolees as long as they are based on the specific circumstances of each individual parolee. The ruling was upheld in appellate court.

When the case made its way through the state Supreme Court, all five justices in 2015 agreed with the trial court that the law was unconstitutional and its enforcement had “unintended and socially deleterious” consequences.

“(The law) has infringed their liberty and privacy interests, however limited, while bearing no rational relationship to advancing the state’s legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators, and has violated their basic constitutional right to be free of unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive official action,” the court wrote.

Another 2016 appellate ruling found the same for registrants monitored by county probation officials.

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Post-release supervision

Since the ruling, agencies in charge of supervising 290 registrants enforce restrictions — some of which still include limitations on housing — only if specified by the courts.

According to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, those come in the form of a probation or parole condition based on an individual offender’s record and “a balancing test taking into consideration the burden on the offender and the safety of the community,” according to Chris White, a deputy DA assigned to the office’s 290 caseload.

When convicted sex offenders are released from state prison on parole, they are monitored by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the life of their court-determined parole supervision.

For offenders who must maintain registration after their successful completion of parole, which generally lasts about three years, supervision becomes the responsibility of the local jurisdiction, namely police departments or the Sheriff’s Office in unincorporated areas of the county.

Convicted sex offenders who do not serve time in prison are typically placed on post-release community supervision, a type of monitoring now handled at the county level by probation departments for people who would have been supervised by parole officials prior to 2011’s Public Safety Realignment, which sought to reduce overcrowding in California’s prisons.

Offenders convicted of violent or “serious” crimes, those paroled from life terms, mentally disordered offenders and sex offenders deemed high-risk are not eligible for post-release county supervision.

Local offenders on post-release supervision are monitored by the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department, which currently has two full-time officers assigned to 290 registrants, according to Assistant Chief Probation Officer Robert Reyes.

Like parole, once a registered offender completes their terms of post-release supervision, the responsibility for enforcing registration compliance and any other restrictions becomes the responsibility of local jurisdictions.

“We put a lot of investment in offenders to make sure they’re not creating a public-safety issue, but once they’re out of (post-release supervision), it’s really incumbent upon local law enforcement agencies to supervise them,” Reyes said.

In doing so, local agencies require registered offenders to physically register their address with the agency within five days of their birthday. If they move, they must re-register with that agency within five days. Offenders registering as transient have to re-register every 30 days.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Grace Norris said the department has a Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement (SAFE) team, comprised of one full-time detective and one reserve detective, which is responsible for monitoring registered sex offenders throughout the county, as well as investigating internet crimes against children.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the agency monitored 269 registered offenders, conducted 488 compliance checks and investigated 45 possible registration violations in 2017. As of Sept. 11, 2018, the Sheriff’s Office was supervising a caseload of 261 registered offenders, and just one individual was out of compliance at that time, according to department spokesman Tony Cipolla. A warrant has been issued for that man’s arrest, according to court records.

Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters said his department has a full-time detective also assigned to 290 registrants. That officer conducts compliance checks, and if a sex offender is found in violation, that person may be arrested, Peters said.

But he added that local police also want to help convicted offenders who’ve paid their debt to society to keep in good standing so they may be productive members of the community.

“We try to assist them with getting in compliance as much as possible,” Peters said.

Atascadero Police Chief Jerel Haley, whose department also has a detective assigned to tracking the city’s resident and transient offenders, said that when in doubt, residents should feel free to contact the department if they have concerns about a registrant living in their area.

Haley said the department’s detective will review the individual status of the registrant and determine if any criminal violations are present.

“In some cases there may be nothing that can, or should, be done,” Haley said. “Just because someone is a registrant, does not mean that they are a threat to public safety.”

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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