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SL waits for sex offender law to be decided

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

State law would isolate nearly entire community

City of Storm Lake Public Safety Director Mark Prosser Monday said the city is taking a wait-and-see approach to enforcing state residency requirements for sex offenders pending a decision by the United States Supreme Court on whether it will hear a challenge of the law.

Prosser said Storm Lake will follow state law. The current controversial law bars certain sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center. Some cities have gone one better, drawing their own buffer zones around parks, playgrounds, trails, swimming pools, libraries, and school bus stops.

About two dozen cities and towns, from Des Moines to the little town of Garrison, have rushed to further limit where past child molesters can live - already forcing some to leave their homes and making some small communities virtually off limits.

Storm Lake's city council has not been among those to pursue a ban or limits beyond what the 2002 state law dictated. There are currently 13 people living in Storm Lake listed on the Iowa sex offender registry, and 23 in Buena Vista County.

Proponents of the tougher regulations say that not enough can be done to keep sex offenders away from their communities' children. Opponents include the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. The ICLU sued on behalf of more than a dozen sex offenders, arguing that the rule infringed on the right of offenders to live where they want and punished them after they had paid their debt to society.

A federal judge agreed and blocked the law, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed over the summer, saying Iowa lawmakers had the authority to set limitations to protect its residents.

Iowa prosecutors and police began enforcing the law in September after giving offenders inside the buffer zones time to find new housing. Last month, the ICLU filed an appeal to the Supreme Court which has not yet decided whether to hear the case.

With its many schools and day cares, Prosser said the state law isolates just about the entire community of Storm Lake with the exception of a few areas.

"They're (state) not giving us the resources to enforce that. We agreed with Phil Havens' (county attorney) suggestions that we take a wait-and-see attitude." Prosser said many other communities around the state could take a similar approach.

"From an enforcement and a prosecutorial standpoint, we don't want to do anything right now that could be held up in limbo," Prosser said.

The Iowa Civil Liberties Union is challenging the Iowa statute in what could become the first U.S. Supreme Court test of sex offender residency laws now being used in some form by as many as 14 states.

Iowa lawmakers from both parties have said they will fight any attempt to water down Iowa's law, already considered one of the toughest among the states with such laws.

"If the result is sex offenders leaving Iowa, we think that's good news," Senate Democratic leader Mike Gronstal said.

Last month, Ely, a town of 1,500 without a single school or day care center, became the first Iowa city to pass tougher new rules. It banned sex offenders from living near the city park, playground, and library - in effect, making nearly the entire town a sex-offender-free zone.

"We felt a little vulnerable," said Chris Johnson, an Ely resident and mother of two. "For a lot of towns like ours, we can become the only place available for sex offenders."

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