Friday, October 31, 2008

Pushback beginning on Halloween sex offender hype

I'm glad to see this year more thoughtful critiques popping up of grandstanding by law enforcement and the annual, mostly fact-free media hype surrounding registered sex offenders and Halloween. (See prior, related Grits posts.) In Maryland, officials partially backed off their "scarlet pumpkin" strategy after becoming the butt of national jokes, reports the Washington Times:

The bright orange signs, reading, "No candy at this residence," in all capital letters, were sent to the state's 1,200 violent and child sex offenders earlier this month along with instructions that they must post them on their front doors on Friday evening.

But the plan became fodder for television comics ranging from Jay Leno to the "Saturday Night Live" cast after details were reported Oct. 15 by The Washington Times.

"Sex offenders in Maryland are now required to post signs that read, 'No candy at this residence,' on Halloween or face a possible parole violation," Seth Meyers deadpanned on the 'Weekend Update' part of NBC's long-running Saturday night program. "They are also being required to take down the signs that read, 'Knock if you can keep a special secret.'"

Laughing at stupid public policies is sometimes the best way to influence public opinion, so I'm glad to know the Saturday Night Live piece struck a nerve and many in the public apparently see through the hype. After all, trick or treaters are statistically much more likely to be hit by lightning than molested by a registered sex offender while soliciting candy.

Even more promising, reports the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, this week "a federal court temporarily struck down two provisions of a Missouri law that banned, among other things, sexual offenders from having “Halloween-related contact” with children." In that case:

according to a ruling ... by U.S. District Jude Carol Jackson, Missouri sex offenders won’t have to comply with parts of a new state law. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Judge Jackson temporarily struck down two provisions as unconstitutionally vague: a ban on “Halloween-related contact” with children and a requirement to stay inside from 5-10:30 p.m. “unless required to be elsewhere for just cause.” (Click here for the law.)

Apparently, Judge Jackson was concerned that in some cases, parents could be punished for Halloween activities with their own children, such as “carving a pumpkin in the privacy of your kitchen with your 5-year-old child.” She questioned whether such parents might have to send their kids away on Halloween to avoid prosecution. “It’s not too much to expect criminal laws to be clear,” she said.

The ruling came after four convicted sexual offenders sued this month, represented by the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. Their lawyer, Anthony E. Rothert, told the NYT: “Once people have completed their sentences, you can’t go back and punish them for the same crime.”

The state is appealing that case so perhaps by next Halloween there will be more guidance from federal courts on what type of restrictions may be applied to sex offenders on Halloween. Given the ruling from the Show-Me State, I have to wonder if even more restrictive Texas policies would pass constitutional muster if they were challenged? (UPDATE: A three judge panel on the 8th Circuit reversed the district judge and said the restrictions could stand until the case is fully resolved. Sex Crimes Blog, Constitutional Law Prof, Above the Law, Althouse, TalkLeft, SexOffenderResearch, and Volokh Conspiracy are also covering the case.)

In several Texas counties, including Lubbock, Hidalgo, and Guadalupe, local authorities are rounding up sex offenders on probation or parole to spend Halloween night in the jail or county probation offices. This seems especially silly for a number of reasons. First, the officers monitoring these people would do more to benefit public safety if they were out on the street looking for drunks or teenage vandals on a night with one of the highest youth crime rates of the year. In Lubbock, in particular, extra traffic from the approaching UT-Texas Tech game tomorrow night (my father lucked out and will get to to watch the game from box seats) poses a much greater threat than the remote chance a trick or treater will be molested.

Even more silly, these just-for-show tactics ignore most registered sex offenders, applying only to those still formally on probation or parole. In Bexar County, for example, where law enforcement will waste resources doing house to house checks on supervised sex offenders instead of a roundup (which their DA Susan Reed had supported), "Of the 3200 sex offenders that are registered, approximately 814 are under supervision, which is probation or parole."

So if Bexar's numbers are typical, the no-candy restrictions only apply to about a quarter of registered sex offenders! To the extent the tactic addresses a real threat, that makes the policy counterproductive and harmful (instead of just wasteful and useless) because the publicity could give people a false sense that every registered sex offender will be restricted from participating in Halloween when in fact the overwhelming majority can put up decorations, give out candy, and fully participate in the holiday once they're off probation or parole. Despite that reality, over and over we see stories like this one declaring that "It is against the law for sex offenders to decorate their homes for Halloween or place anything that might attract children," but that's just not true for most people on the registry.

El Paso and Houston are is similarly expending patrol resources to check up on sex offenders instead of focusing on DWI, vandalism, or youth crime. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has predictably jumped on the bandwagon. (The blog SexOffenderResearch has numerous posts about ongoing crackdowns in other states.)

Of course, in the only documented case in history of a Halloween related child abduction (35 years ago in Wisconsin), the perpetrator had no prior criminal history and so wouldn't have been captured by any registry-related restrictions. Most sex crimes are committed by people who aren't on the registry, and even if that weren't true, the much-publicized restrictions don't apply to 3/4 of registered sex offenders. What a wasted effort!

The annual demagoguing over sex offenders at Halloween is a classic example of what security expert Bruce Schneier calls "security theater," hyping (and pretending to solve) a threat that in reality is extremely remote, even to the point of diverting resources from policing activities like DWI enforcement that would protect more people and save more lives. The approach is dumb, it's wrong, and it makes the public less safe.

Perhaps we'll look back sometime in the future and consider 2008 the year the media and the public began to re-think these thoughtless, hype-driven policies. I hope so.

RELATED: On the bright side, not everyone in the MSM, apparently, has bought into the hype. This excellent article from the blog Sex Offender Research points us to " ONE -- TWO -- THREE -- FOUR -- FIVE articles explaining real dangers" (e.g., drunk driving, fire hazards, choking, food allergies) facing kids and families on Halloween.


Anonymous said...

In Odessa this week the police did a home check on the sex offenders registered in the city. Those who weren't home due to work got a visit at work. Those working out of town were strongly encouraged to contact authorities before an arrest warrant is issued.

I live in Midland, I sure feel safer. not. The only good news is that those officers who were pulled from regular duties got Over time last night due to an armed robbery (Odessa) in which 8 were taken hostage. The two bad guys escaped and my question, if the officers were doing regular duties, would the bad guys have gotten away?


Anonymous said...

Well, First and foremost any of the offenders that are NOT under the supervision of the courts need to contact an attorney. Enslavement, even for 5 hours is illegal.

The problem with Texas, of which I am a resident, is that none of the SO population wants to challenge the laws in fear of being outed and our families being put under even more stress and threat of harm.

Texas justice is wide and far reaching, and in my experience does not care if the families of SO's get trampled on their buffalo roundup.

Until the hype, and lies of media and elected officials is curtailed, none of these laws will ever have a chance to be looked at and actually written to protect people.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Just to be clear, 8:31, the only people authorities are forcing to participate in their roundups are the ones still under supervision (probation or parole). I didn't mean to imply those other 3/4 were also banned from Halloween activities (they're not), though most of the MSM coverage fails to make that critical distinction.

Ham2mtr - that's quite an excellent example of EXACTLY why I think this is a dumb idea. We need cops to protect us from actual crime, not wasting resources to promote some crass public relations initiative.

Anonymous said...

Were this and similar information turned over to some of TV's talking heads would they have the guts to do something about it? I would love to see a talking head ask Greg Abbott that since the only documented sex crime against a child on Halloween was committed by someone who had no previous convictions, how cost effective are Halloween campaigns? Especially since a child is four times as likely to be killed b a car on Halloween compared to another day?

My guess is that they would never ask Greg Abbot such questions.

Anonymous said...

xo, quite a few major and minor news folks have the info. In fact, they've had the info for many years. Unfortunately, most of what passes for news these days is little more than reprinting press releases. It isn't reviewed, considered, investigated, or -- heaven forbid! -- corrected.

Unknown said...

Your disdain for Bexar County DA Susan Reed is obvious.

However, you should at least try get your facts right.

I let it slide last week when you just fabricated the line that Susan Reed tried and failed to get people interested in a round up of sex offenders on Halloween. Just plain wrong and you cannot get any source to say she did. The whole plan came from Bexar County Adult Probation, a STATE agency independent of the District Attorney's Office. They considered it and then let the idea drop. Susan Reed had nothing to do with. Check your facts first before making up things. Bad form.

As to whether she supported the idea, she took no position one way or the other. I doubt if it had taken shape she would have come out against it because she would not openly oppose what another agency is doing to fight crime, even if there are more efficient ways of doing it. But, to act like this was her idea or something she was fighting for is just incorrect. I dare you to find someone to say otherwise. Don't let your personal grudges get in the way of the truth.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Why don't you get your facts straight, John? The San Antonio Express News attributed the idea to her, so maybe you should bother to read the newspaper before announcing "you cannot get any source to say she did."

Anonymous said...

"Just to be clear, 8:31, the only people authorities are forcing to participate in their roundups are the ones still under supervision (probation or parole). I didn't mean to imply those other 3/4 were also banned from Halloween activities (they're not), though most of the MSM coverage fails to make that critical distinction."

Incorrect. The state ruling, as written, applies to ALL registered sex offenders, whether they are on parole or not.

Here is the link to the OFFICIAL site, with the OFFICIAL revision:

Pertinent text:

Halloween, restrictions on conduct--violations, penalty.

589.426. 1. Any person required to register as a sexual offender under sections 589.400 to 589.425 shall be required on October thirty-first of each year to:

(1) Avoid all Halloween-related contact with children (STAYED BY 8th Circuit);

(2) Remain inside his or her residence between the hours of 5 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. unless required to be elsewhere for just cause, including but not limited to employment or medical emergencies (STAYED BY 8th Circuit);

(3) Post a sign at his or her residence stating, "No candy or treats at this residence"; and

(4) Leave all outside residential lighting off during the evening hours after 5 p.m.

2. Any person required to register as a sexual offender under sections 589.400 to 589.425 who violates the provisions of subsection 1 of this section shall be guilty of a class A misdemeanor.

NOWHERE in this sequence does it restrict the enforcement to those offenders whom are not on probation or parole, hence, Anonymous 8:31 is correct in his inference that sex offenders whom are NOT on parole are subject to official (house) arrest.

I also confirmed with the Attorney General's office earlier today confirming that the enforcement was directed to ALL offenders, including those off of parole.

I will have to admit, though: Who defines "just cause," and how is it going to be enforced? Is vacation "just cause," etc.?

Anonymous said...

Hello!!! Do you live in Bexar??
Adult Probation Chief Fitzgerald only works in his office watching sport shows. The thought of him putting forth any work is a hoot!!!
Hey, but he will let innocent people go to jail and then cover it up!!! Where is Reed on that???
Misuse of Office for Fitzgerald????
Crime ...Heck YEA!!!!

I have no idea whose idea it was but Fitzgerald and Adult Probation?? HA HA!!!!

Reed needs to follow the saga down the street from her and see the corruption and the cover up.

Have a feeling she will act when the time is right.

Bexar sex offenders get almost all their home visits at treatment from the officers. Let Reed know that. Tell her to pull the files and check the state money spent for a unit to do home visits of sex offenders. Bet you find where the officers check the treatment log and then walk out. All this right under her nose.

The DA hears the officers down the street calling foul. Where is our beloved tough DA? Every citizen in Bexar knows Fitzgerald is a clown. How does Reed sit in her ivory tower and let her ADA's tell victims the probation officers will watch these offenders???
We all know thats not happening. The officers are fighting to see who gets out the door first. How many turned in their badge today 6,7 or 8. The ship is watching sex offenders in Bexar. The round up needs to be for Fitzgerald and his whole administrative team!!!!!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To Michael Storac, that sentence referred to Texas' various local roundups, not Missouri's contested law. Here, the extra provisions only cover those under supervision.