Judge grants partial injunction in Halloween-sex offender law

ST. LOUIS | A federal judge ruled Monday that parts of Missouri's new law restricting registered sex offenders' actions on Halloween night are unenforceable, saying it lacked clarity and could cause confusion for sex offenders and those charged with enforcing the law.

U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson granted a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of some parts of the law after hearing arguments in a case brought by four sex offenders.

Attorney General Jay Nixon's spokesman, Scott Holste, said the office was not prepared to discuss the ramifications of the order but would appeal quickly.

The law approved by the Legislature in May and signed by Gov. Matt Blunt in June requires that sex offenders avoid all Halloween-related contact with children from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 31. It requires them to remain inside their homes with the outside lights off, and to post a sign saying they have no candy.

A violation is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.

Attorney Chris Quinn, arguing for the state, said the law is aimed at protecting children on a night when many visit strangers' homes, sometimes without their parents.

"Sex offenders pose a risk of reoffending that's higher than anyone else," he said during the four-hour hearing.

Jackson found no fault with the provision requiring sex offenders to keep their outdoor lights off. She also agreed there was no lack of clarity in the requirement for a sign that reads, "No candy or treats at this residence."

But other aspects of the statute were too broad and raise questions, the judge said.

For example, Jackson said, may a sex offender have contact with his or her own children on Halloween? Passing out candy is clearly prohibited, but what else constitutes "Halloween-related activity?" And if a sex offender planned to be out of town on Halloween, he or she would not technically be "inside the home" as the law requires, Jackson said.

The law also allows sex offenders to leave home on Halloween night if there is "just cause" such as work or an emergency, but Jackson criticized the measure for failing to define "just cause" more clearly.

Such vagueness would cause confusion among sex offenders, police and prosecutors, Jackson said.

She cited a letter sent out by the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department to registered sex offenders in that southeast Missouri county. She said the letter's reference to the "Halloween season" could have police trying to enforce the law on days other than Oct. 31 — clearly not the law's intent, she added.

The injunction stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Attorney Dave Nelson called the requirements of the law a "scarlet letter" for sex offenders. He said the law also results in additional punishment by requiring what amounts to "house arrest" one day each year.

Anthony Rothert, the legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said the judge did not limit her order to just the four plaintiffs in the case.

In practical terms, the judge's order appears to mean that registered sex offenders in Missouri do still have to turn off their porch light and post a sign saying they don't have candy on Halloween night, he said.

But as he understands it, the judge's order means registered sex offenders in Pike, Cape Girardeau and St. Louis counties where the plaintiffs live, can spend time with their children on Halloween and do not have to stay inside their homes.

Rothert suggested registered sex offenders statewide check with their county sheriff's department to see how they plan on enforcing the law. Rothert said the judge's order only applies to this Halloween, but he added the ACLU will continue working to get the entire statute off the books.