When a panel of three Superior Court judges last month nullified the County of Orange's ordinance that bans registered sex offenders from county parks and recreational areas where children gather, the Orange County District Attorney's office responded it looked forward to, as the judges recommended, the California Court of Appeals taking up the case. Prosecutors got their wish, but the Orange County Public Defender and a law-reform advocate also sound eager to continue the debate over the constitutionality of the county law.
An opening brief from the public defender's office is due at the Santa Ana-based appellate court on Jan. 17.
"If justice is to be served, the Court of Appeals will uphold the decision made by the three-judge panel of the Orange County Superior Court because the ordinance on its face violates both the state and federal constitutions," says Janice Bellucci, president of California's Reform Sex Offender Laws, in a statement. "The ordinance also does not increase public safety because more than 90 percent of the individuals who sexually assault children are family members, teachers, coaches, and clergy, not registered sex offenders."
Bellucci, a Santa Maria attorney, pointed to an October California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report that concluded the recidivism rate for registered sex offenders is 1.9 percent.
Written by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and county Supervisor Shawn Nelson, the Board of Supervisors adopted the so-called Child Safety Zone ordinance in April 2011. Rackauckas, Nelson, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, the DA's Chief of Staff Susan Kang Shroeder and other officials then toured Orange County cities recommending their city councils adopt similar laws. Several did just that--and some got dragged into court to defend them.
Due to fears about the rising legal tab to fight for its ordinance, the city of Lake Forest just killed its law.
The Superior Court panel declared the county's ordinance unlawful on Nov. 15. It is Rackauckas' contention that the decision only applied to Hugo Godinez, the plaintiff who challenged the ordinance after he became the first registrant arrested when he attended a company Cinco de Mayo party in Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley.
But following the panel's decision and the dismissal of a sex offender's arrest in Irvine, OC Public Defender Scott M. Van Camp maintains all county and city Child Safety Zone ordinances have been deemed unconstitutional. The sheriff's department has indicated it is no longer enforcing the law given the legal limbo.
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It is the Godinez case that is before the appeals court. The Santa Ana resident was convicted in November on one misdemeanor count of failing to register and show proof of residency upon release from incarceration. He received a sentence of 100 days in jail and five years probation. He has been forced to register as a sex offender with the Costa Mesa Police Department since his sentencing for a 2010 misdemeanor sexual battery conviction.
Schroeder, the DA's chief of staff, previously told the Weekly the decision by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court regarding the Godinez case and the county ordinance is part of the normal process of shaping laws in California and that her boss Rackauckas "always viewed this as a long-term battle to protect children from sex offenders, which is part of our duties."