Thursday, June 4, 2009

Define "Loitering" : Federal Lawsuit in PA : ACLU: Sunbury change sex offender ordinance or face suit.

The city will be named in a federal lawsuit next week if it doesn’t move to eliminate a 2006 ordinance prohibiting registered sex offenders from loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, day cares, playgrounds or any public place children congregate.

The city’s sex offender loitering ordinance is being challenged as unconstitutional by the American Civil Liberties Union. Valerie Burch, of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, contacted city solicitor Michael Apfelbaum on Tuesday and notified him that a lawsuit will be filed next week if the municipality doesn’t act.
“We’re giving the city the opportunity to make it right without going to federal court,” Burch said .

The primary issue with the Sunbury ordinance is its vagueness, she said. “It’s unconstitutional when a law is not clear,” Burch said. “Loitering is not defined. A bug on the street could cause kids to gather.”

Apfelbaum agreed the language in the ordinance was too broad and said he’ll meet next week with the city council to discuss how to tighten up the language to provide more specificity on public areas restricted to sex offenders. “We’ve even asked the ACLU for suggestions,” he said. If the city fails to demonstrate its willingness to address the issue by Monday, Burch said, a lawsuit will be filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on behalf of “Jane Doe.”

“Jane Doe” is Teri Jo Hunt, a 39-year-old Sunbury mother of four and registered sex offender, who was cited for violating the ordinance last summer. The ACLU was alerted to the local law by news reports about Hunt, who was cited after she went to a city park with her young son.

Hunt, who was convicted of a felony offense in 2002 for taking a photo of a young girl’s breasts, said she was adhering to state Megan’s Law requirements of registering annually with the state police but had no idea there was a city law prohibiting her from taking her children to events and places where other minors gathered.

Many municipalities across Pennsylvania have passed ordinances restricting sexual offenders, Burch said, but few include the loitering element. Unlike the city ordinance, the state law doesn’t limit offenders’ housing options or movements.