Court case challenges some restrictions on sex offenders

Jul 12, 2016

A group of convicted child sex offenders is challenging the Illinois law that bans them from parks and schools.

They say key sex offender restrictions are so broad it’s impossible to know what is or isn’t allowed … and that means the laws violate the constitution.

The five anonymous offenders are scheduled to make their case to a federal judge this week. Illinois Public Radio's Patrick Smith reports.

In 2011, John was being evicted from his Chicago home when sheriff’s deputies discovered child pornography on his computer.

JOHN: I view myself as, I think the line between good and bad is often very gray. I don’t think I did anything bad. ...   I was never attracted to children sexually. I never touched anyone of any age inappropriately.

John is one of the people suing to get sex offender restrictions lifted - he agreed to speak to us on the condition that he remain anonymous - so we’re referring to him as John Doe.

In 2012 his name was permanently added to the list of child sex offenders in Illinois.

JOHN: At the very beginning … when the police were interviewing me and they told me ‘aw, you’ll just probably have to register for a while or whatever,’ you know I didn’t really realize how much this was going to affect my life and for how long. … In order to be eligible for probation I had to find a place to live, and it was very hard to find anywhere in the city that a. wasn’t close to a park or a school. But also, I was unemployed, and I had this arrest on my record.

John eventually found a home … he rents a trailer at a place in Des Plaines that charges by the week.

He and his fellow plaintiffs are challenging four specific sections of Illinois’ child sex offender law: a ban on being near parks, a ban on being near schools, a ban on being at places with services exclusively for minors and a ban on holiday events involving children.

Adele Nicholas is John’s attorney.

She says every year the legislature adds new restrictions or requirements for people like John…

NICHOLAS: The problem we’ve identified with these particular statutes is that they’re so vague that people who are required to register can’t actually know what’s prohibited.

One of the registered sex offenders in the suit isn’t sure if he’s allowed to go to his town’s 4th of July Parade or go to a barbecue.

Another plaintiff wants to visit his granddaughter - who lives within 500 feet of a subdivision playground.

State police told him he was allowed to visit as long as he walked straight from his car and back -- but the local cops said he wasn’t allowed to be there at all.

Two of the people suing are regular churchgoers - but they aren’t sure if they’re allowed to attend services because their churches have youth ministries.

NICHOLAS: The language of the statute that says you can’t be present at or associated with a facility that provides services directed towards minors is incredibly broad. It’s unclear whether that might apply to a hospital that has a pediatrician or a pediatric unit in it.  

So if you’re a sex offender and you need emergency care, you may be breaking the law if you go to the hospital.

NICHOLAS: what you’re looking at is someone whose whole life is affected by the risk of ... being arrested and charged with a felony based on these very vague laws.

There’s things John Doe would like to do, but he just doesn’t want to risk it.

There’s a monthly philosophy discussion at a local library, but that library has a kids section. Would it be a felony if John Doe attended?

And one of John’s favorite activities is golfing - it’s a solitary, adult sport. But many of the courses in the area are owned by the park district. Does that make them parks?

JOHN: We discussed it, and this was in group therapy …  but it all came down to the bottom line is the law is the law.  

ZALEWSKI: If you’re a registered sex offender who wants to play golf, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for you as a policy maker.

Mike Zalewski is a state lawmaker. He’s also a former Cook County prosecutor who has tried sex offense cases.

Zalewski’s spent time with victims and their families. He cares about them, and he believes in tough sex offender restrictions to keep kids safe.  That’s why he’s voted for- and sponsored several bills adding to the sex offender restrictions. And he hopes the federal court preserves the laws on the books right now.

But Zalewski is also aware of the problems created by a legislature that keeps on passing more and more sex offender laws. These laws are always politically popular. But Zalewski says at some point they become counterproductive.

There are 29 thousand registered sex offenders in Illinois.

ZALEWSKI:  I will tell you that law enforcement tells us it’s becoming an unwieldy problem for them. So if the sheriff can’t control - or the Chicago Police Department doesn’t have a grip on prohibited places and how many registered offenders there are and whether someone is renewing their registration, then they come to us as policymakers and say ‘help me, because I need your help.’

Zalewski is part of an effort in the state legislature to take a closer look at all of the laws restricting sex offenders.

ZALEWSKI: This is something that policymakers are going to be forced to confront.

The question Nicholas and John Doe want lawmakers to ask themselves is, do these laws actually help achieve their goal - which is not to punish sex offenders, but to protect children?

John Doe doesn’t think they do.

Like the rule that forced him out of Chicago … away from family and friends … and into a trailer in Des Plaines.

JOHN: One of behaviors that led to my offending was a feeling of isolation and loneliness. And now I kinda feel like I’m in isolation and living far away from the people who are my support group. And that kinda defeats the purpose of my therapy.

The Illinois Attorney General - who represents the state in lawsuits - declined to comment.

Both sides are due in court this week to argue over whether some of the sex offender restrictions should be suspended.