Texas home­owner faces evic­tion over sex of­fender sta­tus

Wo­man is en­snared in widen­ing ef­fort by cities to keep of­fend­ers out.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Eric Dex­heimer edex­heimer@states­man.com

KJ grew up in Mead­ows Place, a 1-square-mile Hous­ton bed­room com­mu­nity of mod­est 1970s and ’80s tree-shaded homes. In late 2007, she re­turned as a 33-yearold seek­ing to set­tle in a com­mu­nity she re­called warmly.

“I have great mem­o­ries of this place,” she said. KJ — she asked that her name not be used for fear of los­ing her job; she was fired when her pre­vi­ous em­ployer learned of her back­ground — and her hus­band pur­chased a four-bed­room house near her child­hood home. Her two boys at­tended her old el­e­men­tary school, a three-minute walk away.

The bot­tom fell out four years later. A baby sit­ter the cou­ple had hired in 2003 con­tacted po­lice and re­vealed the two had pur­sued her for sex when she was 15. Ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports and court records, KJ had left af­ter the baby sit­ter said no. But, while she was at work, her hus­band later had sex with the girl.

Called into the po­lice sta­tion in late 2011 and con­fronted with the by-then 23-year-old’s charges, KJ’s hus­band con­fessed. He was

sen­tenced to 10 years of pro­ba­tion. KJ re­ceived 4 years of pro­ba­tion for in­de­cency with a child by ex­po­sure as part of a de­ferred ad­ju­di­ca­tion deal, and she was re­quired to reg­is­ter as sex of­fender.

Al­though many sex of­fend­ers on pro­ba­tion are pro­hib­ited from be­ing around chil­dren, KJ wasn’t. She main­tained cus­tody of her sons, whom she may pick up and drop off at school and ac­tiv­i­ties.

Yet when she showed up to check in at the Mead­ows Place po­lice sta­tion, she said po­lice re­fused to reg­is­ter her as a resi dent and in­formed her she couldn’t live in her home. A city or­di­nance pro­hib­ited reg­is­tered child sex of­fend­ers from liv­ing within a cer­tain dis­tance of places where chil­dren gath­ered; her house was too close to a city pool.

“But I al­ready live here,” she replied.

“You can’t any­more,” she was told. In an un­fold­ing le­gal bat­tle, KJ stands to be­come the first Texas home­owner evicted from her own house for vi­o­lat­ing one of the or­di­nances.

State and lo­cal laws re­strict­ing where reg­is­tered sex of­fend­ers may live af­ter com­plet­ing pro­ba­tion and pa­role have been around for a decade or longer. Many passed in the wake of a flurry of high-pro­file “memo­rial laws” named for chil­dren ab­ducted and killed by strangers. While no Texas statute re­stricts where sex of­fend­ers can re­side once they are re­leased from state su­per­vi­sion, about 80 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have adopted lo­cal or­di­nances pro­hibit­ing reg­is­tered child sex of­fend­ers from liv­ing up to 2,500 feet near where chil­dren gather.

Vi­o­la­tions typ­i­cally come with a fine be­tween $500 and $2,000 per day. Yet of­fi­cials con­cede the re­stric­tions rarely are in­voked as crim­i­nal cases. More of­ten, they func­tion as a le­gal keep-out sign warn­ing sex of­fend­ers they are un­wel­come.

“It puts ev­ery­body on no­tice that we’re not go­ing to tol­er­ate these cases,” said Hutto Po­lice Chief By­ron Fran­k­land, who pushed for the Austin sub­urb to adopt a 1,000-foot res­i­dency re­stric­tion soon af­ter be­ing hired this year.

Sara Bustil­loz, pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the Pflugerville Po­lice De­part­ment, said she knew of no in­stances in which a per­son had been cited for vi­o­lat­ing the city’s rule pro­hibit­ing child sex of­fend­ers from liv­ing within 2,000 feet of a school, day care cen­ter, play­ground, youth cen­ter, pub­lic swim­ming pool or video ar­cade. But she noted the city now has fewer than half the num­ber of reg­is­tered of­fend­ers as when it en­acted its res­i­dency re­stric­tions in 2007.

“Based on our or­di­nance, they’re go­ing to know how dif­fi­cult it is to move here,” she said.

A new state law re­quires cities with fewer than 5,000 res­i­dents and such a re­stric­tion to have a process by which sex of­fend­ers who want to move into a re­stricted area can ap­ply for an ex­emp­tion. Most re­quire a pub­lic hear­ing in front of the city coun­cil.

In West Lake Hills — where a city or­di­nance pro­hibits reg­is­tered child sex of­fend­ers not only from liv­ing within 1,000 feet of schools, play­grounds and youth cen­ters, but also school bus stops — coun­cil mem­bers must quiz an ap­pli­cant about his re­la­tion­ship with his mother be­fore grant­ing an ex­emp­tion, among other cri­te­ria. Ad­vo­cates say such pro­ce­dures are un­likely to re­sult in many ap­pli­ca­tions or ap­provals.

Live ‘some­where far away’

Res­i­dency re­stric­tions re­flect a be­lief that those con­victed of sex of­fenses are uniquely dan­ger­ous and in­ca­pable of re­form. “There is con­vinc­ing doc­u­mented ev­i­dence that sex of­fend­ers are sex­ual preda­tors who present an ex­treme threat to pub­lic safety, are likely to use phys­i­cal vi­o­lence in the com­mis­sion of their crimes and have a higher re­cidi­vism rate than persons con­victed of other crimes,” states the or­di­nance in the North Texas town of Venus.

As the num­ber of reg­is­tered sex of­fend­ers in Texas ap­proaches 90,000, how­ever, stud­ies have found many of those as­sump­tions to be false. Stud­ies show the vast ma­jor­ity of sex of­fenses are com­mit­ted against fam­ily mem­bers or ac­quain­tances, and that con­victed sex of­fend­ers ap­pear less likely to re­peat their crime than those con­victed of other of­fenses.

That means laws based on of­fend­ers grabb i ng ran­dom chil­dren off play­grounds have lit­tle prac­ti­cal ef­fect on pub­lic safety. “The re­search does not sup­port that res­i­dency re­stric­tions, or ex­clu­sion zones, have any ben­e­fi­cial im­pact on safety, or re­cidi­vism, or any other ob­jec­tive you’re try­ing to achieve here,” Michele Deitch, of the Univer­sity of Texas’s LBJ School of Pub­lic Af­fairs, told state leg­is­la­tors this spring. “In fact, there’s a grow­ing body of re­search that shows res­i­dency re­stric­tions in­crease sex of­fender re­cidi­vism rates” by driv­ing of­fend­ers away from fam­ily and other sup­port sys­tems.

Of­fend­ers say re­stric­tion rules can be dif­fi­cult to un­tan­gle. Frus­trated with try­ing to iden­tify where he was for­bid­den to travel, last year a Univer­sity of Texas grad de­vel­oped a map­ping app to help other sex of­fend­ers com­ply. (West Lake Hills, whose or­di­nance re­quires its map of pro­hib­ited zones “be avail­able to the pub­lic,” re­fused to re­lease it to the Amer­i­can-States­man.)

When Keith Gal­le­gos moved from Florida to Venus in Jan­uary 2016, he’d been off pa­role for more than a decade for his 1996 of­fense. But he was re­quired to reg­is­ter as a child sex of­fender and abide by the city’s ex­clu­sion zones of 1,000 feet from places where chil­dren gather.

Us­ing his car odome­ter to iden­tify the bound­aries, he found a house to buy. On the day of the clos­ing, how­ever, po­lice in­formed him he’d mis­mea­sured the dis­tance from a com­mu­nity swim­ming pool; his house was only 850 feet away.

He can­celed the deal. Three months later, Gal­le­gos pur­chased an­other house, this time us­ing Google Maps. Days af­ter clos­ing, Venus po­lice told him their laser mea­sure­ments showed it was 48 feet too close to the pro­hib­ited zone.

Even some po­lice are am­biva­lent about the re­stric­tions’ value. San An­to­nio’s-or­di­nance pro­hibits reg­is­tered of­fend­ers from liv­ing within 1,000 feet of city parks, in­clud­ing the River Walk. But Capt. Richard Martinez, su­per­vi­sor of the city’s Park Po­lice unit, said of­fi­cers will cite vi­o­la­tors only if they catch the at­ten­tion of po­lice for other mat­ters.

As for ac­tively check­ing to make sure no of­fender lives too close to a park, “We’re not go­ing to do that, nor do we have the re­sources to do it,” he said, adding, “If you want to mea­sure the or­di­nance in terms of how many ci­ta­tions we is­sue, it’s not very use­ful.”

Res­i­dency re­stric­tions have been chal­lenged in court in re­cent years. Mas­sachusetts jus­tices com­pared them to the in­tern­ment of Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II. A pend­ing Chicago case is fight­ing a state law that re­quired two reg­is­tered of­fend­ers to leave their es­tab­lished homes when a new child-re­lated busi­ness opened near them. (The U.S. Supreme Court last week de­clined to hear a Texas case chal­leng­ing Lewisville’s 1,500foot sex of­fender buf­fer.)

Yet the fear of child sex preda­tors per­sists, and many cit­i­zens sup­port res­i­dency re­stric­tions — the wider the bet­ter. In a 2015 study, re­searchers from Ne­braska asked res­i­dents their opin­ion of the state law pro­hibit­ing sex of­fend­ers from liv­ing within 500 feet of schools and day care fa­cil­i­ties.

Sixty per­cent said 500 feet was too close. Half of those thought the buf­fer should be at least a mile; morethan 10 per­cent sim­ply said reg­is­tered of­fend­ers should be forced to live “some­where far away.”

Those sen­ti­ments tend to be ac­cepted by lo­cal of­fi­cials, even those who un­der­stand the laws’ lim­i­ta­tions. “I don’t think (res­i­dency re­stric­tions) are the end-all and be-all,” said Michael Boese, po­lice chief and city ad­min­is­tra­tor for Venus. “But some­times per­cep­tion is im­por­tant to the com­mu­nity.”

“My fa­ther is a child mo­lester and went to prison for that. Trust me — I have no sym­pa­thy for sex preda­tors,” said Bobby Jo Newell, mayor of Bra­zo­ria, which just en­acted a new res­i­dency-re­stric­tion or­di­nance. “Peo­ple act like putting these laws on the book will pro­tect chil­dren. Do I be­lieve it’s go­ing to stop the ma­jor­ity of them? No. Most of these crimes are within the fam­ily. I do feel it’s a false sense of se­cu­rity. But, it’s there.”

Play­grounds not only for chil­dren

The city of Mead­ows Place boasts a school play­ground with a large at­tached park, a com­mu­nity cen­ter and a na­ture park for its 4,600 res­i­dents. Yet this sum­mer city of­fi­cials went on a play­ground-build­ing spree.

New equip­ment ap­peared on small lots in the city’s far east side, on Brighton Boule­vard; and in its north­east­ern-most corner, on Kan­ga­roo Court. Mead­ows Val­ley Park, near the city’s cen­ter, and Meadow Glen Park, on the south­ern bor­der, each in­stalled new play gear, as well. “We had to cut some ex­pen­di­tures out of the bud­get to do it, but we thought it was im­por­tant,” said Mayor Charles Jes­sup.

A tour of the fa­cil­i­ties, how­ever, shows Mead­ows Place’s new­est play­ground equip­ment to be an odd as­sort­ment of items.

Kan­ga­roo Pocket Park’s ad­di­tions con­sist of a sin­gle teth­erball pole sur­rounded by a half-dozen tree stumps and a di­men­sional-lum­ber bal­ance bar. In Brighton Park, a small te­pee-look­ing struc­ture made of crooked sticks lashed to­gether with rope is paired with a 6-foot length of cor­ru­gated plas­tic sewer pipe and a sin­gle cheap plas­tic-disc swing hung from a tree.

That’s be­cause the city’s new­est play­grounds aren’t en­tirely about child’s play.

Texas law states that a park needs to have three pieces of equip­ment to be con­sid­ered a play­ground. And Meadow Place’s or­di­nance says sex of­fend­ers can­not live near play­grounds.

The city’s ea­ger­ness for new play­grounds was spurred by a le­gal chal­lenge. Two years ago, Texas Voices for Rea­son and Jus­tice, an ad­vo­cacy group for sex of­fender re­forms, sent a let­ter to 46 so-called gen­eral law cities — those with fewer than 5,000 pop­u­la­tion — with res­i­dency re­stric­tions, threat­en­ing to sue be­cause Texas state law did not give them au­thor­ity to pass the or­di­nances. Rather than wage a costly le­gal bat­tle, about half re­scinded the rules (in­clud­ing Venus, res­cu­ing Gal­le­gos from aban­don­ing his new house.)

Texas Voices sued the rest, in­clud­ing Mead­ows Place. This spring, how­ever, state law­mak­ers rode to their res­cue, qui­etly slip­ping lan­guage into an un­re­lated bill in the leg­isla­tive ses­sion’s wan­ing days that gave the small cities le­gal per­mis­sion to en­act the re­stric­tions. Since it went into ef­fect, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that re­pealed their laws are re­in­stat­ing them.

Be­cause the new state rule lim­ited ex­clu­sion zones to 1,000 feet from child-gath­er­ing spots, how­ever, Mead­ows Place had to ad­just. The pre­vi­ous rule put the bound­aries at 2,000 feet. The new play­grounds “gave us a much needed 1000’ Child Safety Zone in that part of the city,” Jes­sup ex­plained in his Septem­ber news­let­ter.

Thanks in part to the small parks and their new equip­ment, Jes­sup said all but 147 of Mead­ows Place’s 1,456 res­i­dences are now off lim­its to reg­is­tered sex of­fend­ers look­ing to move into the city. He said a new pocket park is planned in the city’s north, which will ex­pand the ex­clu­sion zone.

‘It’s just a gut feel­ing’

Mead­ows Place even­tu­ally agreed to of­fi­cially reg­is­ter KJ as res­i­dent sex of­fender. The pound­ing on her door be­gan the day af­ter, on March 1, just af­ter 1 p.m. In the fol­low­ing days, it of­ten came late in the evening, when she re­turned home from her job as a waitress.

“The po­lice have the real rapid, ag­gres­sive knock, you know?” she said. “Like, bam­bam­bam­bam­bam!”

Each time she an­swered, Mead­ows Place of­fi­cers would of­fi­cially in­formher she was in vi­o­la­tion of the city’s sex of­fender res­i­dency or­di­nance be­cause her house was 676 feet from the com­mu­nity pool. (Mead­ows PlacePo­lice Chief Gary Ste­wart did not re­spond to an in­ter­view re­quest.)

The po­lice is­sued tick­ets on March 2, March 6 and March 9. On the 16th, they is­sued her six sep­a­rate tick­ets, the first at 10:45 p.m., the last 12 min­utes later. By March 18, they’d is­sued KJ 13 tick­ets, each car­ry­ing a $500 fine.

“It’s like they were stalking me,” she said. She started driv­ing around her block­after work to make sure no cruiser was wait­ing for her. In the morn­ings, she peeked out of her cur­tains to see if she was clear to leave. She dis­con­nected her door­bell.

A mu­nic­i­pal judge dis­missed the ci­ta­tions dur­ing the Texas Voices law­suit. But Jes­sup, the mayor, said there was no doubt Mead­ows Place would fight for its res­i­dency re­stric­tion. A City Coun­cil meet­ing to dis­cuss the le­gal threat was packed, he said: “We took a vote, and it was 100 per­cent” in fa­vor of fight­ing to keep the sex of­fender ex­clu­sion zone.

Al­though Jes­sup said he is aware of re­search chal­leng­ing the value of the or­di­nances, he said he trusts his in­stincts. “From my per­spec­tive as a par­ent at the play­ground, there’s enough things for me to worry about with­out wor­ry­ing about sex­ual preda­tors across the street. It’s just a gut feel­ing as a par­ent.”

The city passed a newver­sion of its or­di­nance on Aug. 22. KJ’s at­tor­ney, Richard Glad­den, said he be­lieves she is en­ti­tled to stay in her home be­cause a grand­fa­ther clause in the new state law says any­one who lived in the city be­fore a res­i­dency re­stric­tion or­di­nance was passed can stay.

Mead­ows Place’s at­tor­ney, Grady Ran­dle, dis­putes that, con­tend­ing the grand­fa­ther clause ap­plies only to res­i­dents who were in their home when the city passed its orig­i­nal sex of­fender ex­clu­sion zone law, in 2006 — a year be­fore KJ bought her house. He said it’s the city’s po­si­tion that KJ must move out.

In mid-Septem­ber, po­lice be­gan show­ing up at KJ’s house again, is­su­ing her two more tick­ets. “Since then I haven’t an­swered the door,” she said. A court hear­ing is set for Thurs­day.

ERIC DEX­HEIMER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

The Hous­ton sub­urb of Mead­ows Place has broad­ened its sex of­fender ex­clu­sion zones by des­ig­nat­ing sections of the pub­lic right of way as pocket parks and plac­ing just enough equip­ment on them so the spa­ces qual­ify as play­grounds un­der Texas law. The city’s sex of­fender ex­clu­sion zone or­di­nance for­bids those con­victed of child sex crimes from liv­ing within 1,000 feet of any play­ground.

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