By Alan Prendergast
Colorado's tough sex offender laws are supposed to keep predators under tight supervision.
But a series of lawsuits claim that the system is violating even minor offenders' rights to free speech and association, prohibiting contact with family members -- and, in one particularly bizarre case, telling a 62-year-old man that a discussion with a stepdaughter about her pregnancy constitutes unlawful "third party contact with a child."
Boulder civil rights attorney Alison Ruttenberg has filed at least three federal lawsuits in recent months challenging actions taken by probation officers and others responsible for enforcing the restrictions imposed by the state's Sex Offender Management Board. She's sued treatment providers and board members as well for what she considers over-the-top intrusions into her clients' family lives, choice of reading material and thought processes.
Colorado's controversial "containment" model for monitoring the behavior of sex offenders is based on the premise that there's no known cure for such offenders. But critics of the system have long maintained that it lumps individuals convicted of a minor offense, such as indecent exposure, with violent predators and goes to absurd lengths to "contain" them. A recent report by independent evaluators (PDF) of the state's in-prison treatment program found many inconsistencies and possibly coercive tactics in the program that may be keeping offenders in prison longer than necessary.
One of the lawsuits filed by Ruttenberg contends that the SOMB guidelines for managing sex offenders "are poorly researched, not based on peer-reviewed scientific research, and are largely based on [SOMB member] Peggy Heil's personal publications, which are not peer reviewed, and/or based on publications by victim's advocacy groups."
That case concerns a 62-year-old delivery truck driver who was convicted of misdemeanor unlawful sexual contact based on the complaint of an adult female grocery store employee in Canon City. The woman claimed the man groped her buttocks and breast while they were unloading his truck; the man insisted it was an "unwanted hug" offered to someone he'd hugged before.
The man was sentenced to three years on probation, but he soon learned that his status as a convicted sex offender involved several additional requirements. According to the lawsuit, his probation officer and treatment provider informed him that he could no longer visit his male best friend, have any contact with his grandchildren, or even discuss his grandchildren with his wife's adult children -- even though his crime didn't involve children. And his wife was told to remove all pictures of the grandchildren from the residence: "She has to choose between living with her husband and having pictures of her grandchildren displayed in her house."
The final straw, Ruttenberg's complaint alleges, came after one of the man's stepdaughters called to inform him of her pregnancy and seek advice. The conversation about the fetus was supposedly deemed "third party contact with a child."
In a separate legal action, another Ruttenberg client -- also convicted of unlawful sexual conduct with an adult female and with no history of sexual contact with children -- claims that his probation officer seized from his home vintage stuffed animals given to his wife by her grandmother on the theory that they could be used to "lure children." He also confiscated birding magazines, newspapers and a National Geographic merchandise catalog. The suit claims he was subsequently ordered not to have any contact with his wife and ordered to live in homeless shelters: "This served no legitimate penological goal and instead was done with the intent to harass and humiliate and to retaliate against him and his wife."
Because her client had to avoid all contact with children, Ruttenberg says, he couldn't risk visiting the library, parks or other haunts of the homeless when the shelters weren't open, and thus had to spend most of his days in his car. At the heart of the issue, the lawsuit contends, is that "Colorado probation and parole officers have a 'one size fits all' policy, and all sex offenders are treated the same. Therefore, anyone who has been convicted of a sex offense is treated as if he or she is a serial pedophile."
Ruttenberg says she's received many other complaints from offenders facing probation revocation and prison time and is considering filing other cases. "Apparently this happens all the time," she says.