Judge strikes down sex offender ordinance

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An Allegheny County ordinance limiting where sex offenders can live was politically popular, but a federal judge on Friday ruled it was illegal.

U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster ruled in a summary judgment that the ordinance undermined state law, a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit last year on behalf of six sex offenders.

Judge Lancaster wrote in an opinion that banning convicted sex offenders registered with state police under Megan's Law from living within 2,500 feet of a child care facility, recreational facility, community center, public park or school eliminated most of the county.

Judge Lancaster wrote that the ordinance would force registered sex offenders to live only in outlying suburban areas, which would take them away from family support networks and job opportunities. That would make it more difficult for them to reintegrate into the community, the judge wrote, a goal of the state probation and parole systems.

Judge Lancaster added that in some cases, the state had paroled sex offenders from Allegheny County, but they couldn't be released from prison because they couldn't find housing that complied with the ordinance.

County Councilman Vince Gastgeb introduced the ordinance after a group of Mt. Lebanon residents complained about a sex offender living there. It was passed unanimously in October 2007 and County Executive Dan Onorato issued a news release after he signed the bill, stating, "Today, Allegheny County is taking action to provide another level of security and protection for our children."

Mr. Gastgeb said that the judge's ruling overstated the residency restrictions and that under the ordinance, an offender could live on his street in Bethel Park. "Almost half the county was open," he said.

The map showing where offenders were allowed to live has been removed from the county's Web site.

Mr. Gastgeb said he was surprised to see the ordinance overturned because it was modeled after laws in several other jurisdictions around the country and, he said, was less restrictive than many of them.

But the ordinance was much more strict than current state law, a key reason why Judge Lancaster ruled it should be overturned. Megan's Law requires only that schools and day care centers are alerted when the riskiest offenders -- called "sexually violent predators" -- are living nearby.

Judge Lancaster pointed out that the public safety value of the ordinance is questionable, considering that it doesn't limit where the offenders can work or socialize.

"Just because you can't live somewhere doesn't mean the sex offender who decides to move to Washington or Beaver County doesn't come in during the night to Allegheny County and lay in wait," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Restricting where they live, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for Mr. Onorato, said the county executive will consult with council and county lawyers about whether to file an appeal. The county had agreed not to enforce the ordinance while the lawsuit was pending.

Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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