CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire lawmakers are considering whether to bar municipalities from restricting where the state’s more than 2,500 registered sex offenders can live in light of court rulings that found the restrictions are unconstitutional.
The House passed the proposed ban by a vote of 231-97 in February. The bill now moves to the Senate, where it faces an uphill battle.
The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged sex offender residency restrictions first in Dover, then in Franklin.
In the most recent ruling in 2012, a Merrimack County Superior Court judge said Franklin officials failed to show that barring sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school, day care or playground protects children. A judge in 2009 struck down Dover’s ordinance on similar grounds.
“Many individuals in law enforcement have said the restrictions have the opposite effect,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. “They discourage sex offenders from registering and make it more difficult for law enforcement to keep track of them. It drives them underground.”
Tilton, Sanbornton, Northfield and Boscawen still have residency restrictions, Chaffee said.
“That’s why this is really a state issue,” Chaffee said. “When one town adopts these restrictions, it can push these individuals out of that city or town.”
There were 2,566 registered sex offenders living in New Hampshire in December 2013, according to data compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. State law requires sex offenders to register with the police department of the town in which they reside but puts no restrictions on where they can live, leaving that to local governments.
William Thomas, 32, of Nashua, was convicted in 2010 of felonious sexual assault for having sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 25. He maintains the sex was consensual. Since his conviction, he has found it difficult to find housing.
“I had that one mistake,” Thomas said Friday. “It’s not like I’m stalking little 3-year-olds. Trying to survive afterward has become harder than the original charge.”
His sister offered to let him live in her home in Hudson, then discovered police had hand-delivered letters to her neighbors detailing Thomas’ criminal conviction. His sister told him he could no longer live there because she feared her children would be bullied, he said.
Hudson police say they have no residency restrictions but confirm their practice is to deliver notices to residents when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood.
“Each city has its own strict rules,” Thomas said. “It’s like they set you up to fail.”
Half the states have laws restricting where sex offenders can live. California’s statute was recently found unconstitutional by an appeals court, and a higher court is likely to decide the question. In some places, tight regulations have made it nearly impossible for sex offenders to find a place to live. In 2007 in Miami, more than 100 sex offenders created a camp under a bridge because of strict limits on where they could live.
In the New Hampshire town of Franklin, Town Manager Elizabeth Dragon said its ordinance was amended to remove the residency restrictions after the court ruling. But she opposes a state law, saying other municipalities should have the opportunity to pursue a state Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the restrictions. Franklin withdrew its appeal of the lower court ruling.
“Something that works for one community may not work for another,” she said.
Dragon also stressed that the court rulings could change if research links residency restrictions to public safety.
Tilton Police Chief Robert Cormier said his department is not actively enforcing the town’s residency restrictions in light of the court rulings.
“The main focus here is really stringent registration and monitoring,” Cormier said. “That’s the biggest piece for us.”
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, predicts the bill won’t pass the Senate.
“The Senate is going to want to protect kids and other people sexual predators could attack,” Bradley said. “I think getting rid of any kind of residency restrictions – like in proximity of schools and day care centers – will be a very hard sell for senators, even in the face of a couple of court rulings.”
Rep. Carol McGuire, a Merrimack Republican, said she co-sponsored the bill because she doesn’t think residency restrictions are effective.
“Since other towns were trying to do the same thing, it seemed the sensible thing to do, to head them off at the pass,” McGuire said.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan hasn’t decided whether to sign the bill if it passes the Senate. Most Republicans in the House voted against the ban.
“The governor will listen to the views of law enforcement, local communities, advocates, victims and all stakeholders as the measure is considered by the Senate,” Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said.