RI law preventing high-risk sex offenders from living near schools struck down — here's why

PROVIDENCE — A federal judge has struck down as unconstitutionally vague a state law that prevents high-risk sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school.

U.S. District Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. concluded, in a ruling issued last week, that the law would leave people designated as Level III offenders guessing about where the boundaries lie, and open to the threat of arrest and possible imprisonment if they guessed wrong.

“Because neither an ordinary person, nor law enforcement, could understand the statutory language that attempts to define the boundaries of residences and schools, the Residency Restriction must be declared unconstitutional as void for vagueness,” McConnell said.

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Level III offenders are classified as the highest risk to reoffend. Currently, 1,864 sex offenders live in Rhode Island, 353 of whom are classified as Level III, according to the Rhode Island Sex Offender Registry.

ACLU lawsuitRI ACLU files lawsuit to stop law barring sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school

Background on the ruling

McConnell issued an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the law in 2015, shortly after the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union challenged it on behalf of dozens of offenders in Providence who were ordered to move, or risk arrest.

The law had been in limbo until 2020, when state lawmakers added language to clarify how to calculate the distance between a residence and school. The law was amended to read that the 1,000-foot distance should be measured “from the nearest boundary line of the real property supporting the residence of the person to the nearest boundary line of the real property that supports or upon which there exists a school.”


It’s that language that McConnell found confounding, in keeping with the ACLU’s arguments. Would it apply to playgrounds, fields and parking lots? How often would a property have to be used before it constituted a school? And what if a parking lot was frequented by faculty and not students? Every scenario would need to be determined by authorities on a case-by-case basis, he found.

“After all, if the State's process involved law enforcement, school officials, and attorneys collaborating to make precise individualized determinations on these boundaries, how could an ordinary person ever be expected to faithfully follow this process, let alone come to the same conclusion about where these boundaries lie? Not to mention that these difficulties facilitate arbitrary and inconsistent enforcement,” McConnell observed.

What are the state's next steps?

A spokesman for state Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office said the decision is being reviewed and the state is evaluating the next steps.


“Among the Attorney General's responsibilities is the defense of the constitutionality of lawfully passed legislation,” Brian Hodge said in an email.

The ACLU hailed the ruling.

“The Court’s decision is important to our clients and the class they represent, because it means that they will not be subject to onerous and unknowable requirements as to where they can and cannot live under fear of felony prosecution. At the same time, registered sex offenders still face and are subject to a host of requirements and review to stay on the right side of the law,” said Lynette Labinger, who argued for the ACLU along with John E. MacDonald.

In 2008, the state made it a felony for any registered sex offender to live within 300 feet — the length of one football field — from any public or private school. The General Assembly revised the law seven years later to extend the buffer for Level III offenders to 1,000 feet in response to a high-profile offender's presence in Warwick.


The revised law passed over the objections from advocates for the homeless, the ACLU and the public defender's office, who argued it would leave people homeless and difficult for law enforcement to monitor people without making communities any safer.

In addition, they argued that it would further complicate offenders’ efforts to reintegrate into society.

The ACLU emphasized in a statement after McConnell’s ruling that corrections administrators‚ experts who treat sex offenders, victims’ rights groups, and homeless advocates, both in Rhode Island and nationally, oppose sex offender residency laws as being ineffective, counter-productive, and potentially more, rather than less, harmful to public safety.

“The law applies to all Level III sex offenders, even if their crime was committed against an adult, and even though the overwhelming majority of sex offenses are committed against people the offender knows, not stranger,” the ACLU said.


Correction: Jason Knight withdrew from a case challenging a state law restricting high-risk sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school. Knight's status in the case was incorrectly reported.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI sex offender law preventing living near schools unconstitutional