Appeals Court Upholds Sex Offender Ban

By: Gerri L. Elder

The town of Plainfield, Ind., has won an important battle in the fight over banning sex offenders from parks. The ruling may also affect other cities and towns in Indiana with similar bans, according to the Indy Star.

Two years ago, the courts struck down a ban in Indianapolis that kept sex offenders out of public parks. Plainfield’s ordinance is a purposefully narrower measure, which was carefully written specifically to endure court challenges. In Lafayette and Michigan City, bans that have withstood the court’s scrutiny have been enacted.

Under Plainfield’s ordinance, people who are publicly listed on the state registry of sex offenders may not enter town parks and recreational areas. Convictions for crimes such as rape, child molestation and incest require people to register with the state.

In Greenwood, Indiana, a ban on sex offenders in parks, similar to the one in Plainfield, was enacted two years ago. A lawsuit over the constitutionality of the Greenwood ordinance has been on hold, pending the outcome of the case in Plainfield. A similar suit is pending in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

The Indianapolis ordinance that was struck down prohibited convicted sex offenders from coming within 1,000 feet of a park or school. A federal judge found that the ordinance was overly broad and noted that there were few places in the city that actually were not within 1,000 feet of a park, school, playground or other spot where children gather or play.

After the ordinance was struck down in Indianapolis, officials there chose to let it die. The ruling was not appealed and the City-County Council has not entertained the idea of writing a new ordinance that might survive court challenges by criminal defense attorneys.

On September 24, the appeals court, in a unanimous ruling, decided that while Plainfield’s ban on sex offenders in parks does have a punitive aspect, the ordinance did not violate guarantees to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness under the Indiana Constitution. The ruling upholds a decision in favor of Plainfield made in March by Hendricks Superior Court Judge Robert Freese.

In November 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Marion County, Indiana man who was identified only as John Doe. The suit claimed that Plainfield’s ordinance banning sex offenders at parks was unconstitutional on several grounds.

First the ACLU argued that the Indiana Constitution provides that the enjoyment of the parks is a core value. Secondly, it argued that by banishing convicted sex offender from parks, the ordinance served as a second punishment for a crime.

The man identified as John Doe is a convicted sex offender who was released from probation in August 2004. The lawsuit alleged that he and his son visited parks in Plainfield until June 2005 when a police officer recognized him as a person on the state registry of sex offenders. The officer advised Doe of the ordinance banning sex offenders from visiting parks in Plainfield.

This kicked off the lawsuit against Plainfield, which has now been decided in its favor. During the case, Doe won a court ruling to keep his identity in the case private, although he is listed publicly on the state sex offender registry.

The ACLU is obviously disappointed that the ban on sex offenders in parks was upheld in Plainfield because they feel that the ordinance does in fact violate constitutional rights. A decision about whether or not to appeal the case to the Indiana Supreme Court will be made shortly.

Back in Plainfield, officials are extremely pleased by the 3-0 vote by the appeals court.