By Kimberley Haas
CONCORD - A bill prohibiting residency restrictions for registered sex offenders and offenders against children which was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month is causing concern among some legislators, who say the bill would strip communities of their ability to protect children.
HB 1237 (PDF) is based upon two court decisions where judges found local ordinances restricting residency for offenders to be unconstitutional.
One of the cases cited came out of Dover District Court. In August of 2009, Dover's ordinance that prohibited registered sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school or day care center was deemed unconstitutional by Judge Mark Weaver after a challenge by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. Weaver found the city did not show a substantial relationship between the ordinance and the protection of children.
Judge Larry Smukler cited the same reason when he overturned Franklin's ordinance in 2012 at Merrimack County Superior Court. New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union also challenged that ordinance.
Rep. Jim Webb, R-Derry, contacted Foster's Daily Democrat to voice his concerns this week. He said the bill would force the 11 cities and towns with residency restrictions to allow sex offenders and offenders against children to live wherever they want, even if it is in an apartment above a day care. Webb said this strips local governments of their ability to protect children as they see fit.
Derry does not have residency restrictions for offenders.
Rep. Laura Jones, R-Rochester, said she also believes in local control.
“Because I support local control, I decided to vote against HB 1237,” Jones said.
Jones has a friend that lives in a town where there is such an ordinance and she said her friend reports it is effective and has protected children.
The Rochester representative said she performed her own research on court rulings in this area and found decisions made by judges are mixed.
Rep. Steve Beaudoin, R-Rochester, echoed Webb's concerns about the proximity of sex offenders to children and loss of local control.
“Though the courts have ruled that no town or city can restrict where a sex offender lives, I believe that if a city or town wants to challenge that they should be able to. As I see it, this law will prohibit that challenge,” Beaudoin said.
Supporters of the bill say that residency restrictions deprive registrants of their fundamental property rights and drive them underground.
“The research explains why banning offenders from most areas of a town forces them into homelessness, destabilizes them and concentrates them in the outskirts of town, far away from buses, services, jobs and mediators,” the bill's sponsor, Timothy Robertson, D-Keene, wrote on behalf of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee for representatives to review when preparing to vote.
In an interview Wednesday, Robertson said that every molester is not the same.
“There are lots of cases where a 21-year-old didn't know the other person was 15,” Robertson said. “They simply came upon each other and got what they wanted.”
When asked if the bill would, in effect, allow an offender against children to rent an apartment above a day care center, Robertson said he doubts very much that a person with a day care center on their property would rent to anyone without checking the free public sex offender list which is posted online.
Robertson cited cases of people who are legitimate and successful business owners who are considered sex offenders and others who, even 30 years after the crime, have a hard time finding a job due to the discrimination they face.
Robertson pointed out that judges do have the discretion in individual cases to limit where a sex offender or offender against children can live.
HB 1237 will now go to the Senate, where a similar bill was tabled in 2010.