A Saratoga County law regulating where sex offenders can live and work has joined a growing list of similar laws in neighboring counties that have been struck down for encroaching on the state’s authority.
In a decision written July 12, Saratoga County Court Judge Jerry J. Scarano concluded that the county’s 2006 law, restricting the employment and residence of all classes of sex offenders, should be thrown out on the basis that it intrudes on the authority of established state law.
According to Waterford Town Supervisor John Lawler, the county law was passed as a way to strengthen state laws on the issue. “[Existing laws] seemed to me to be a little inadequate,” he said.
“The intent of the legislation was to provide a safe buffer between locations where children would congregate … and people who had been convicted and identified as sexual offenders,” Lawler said. “A thousand feet, the length of three football fields, between children and sexual offenders seemed to be the more prudent way to protect children.”
The law imposed a 1,000-foot buffer zone around schools, child-care facilities, parks, playgrounds, youth centers and swimming pools in which sex offenders could not reside or work. The law defined sex offender as anyone convicted of a sexual offense and did not differentiate based on the risk level assigned or whether the offender was under the supervision of parole or probation.
In April 2010, Rodney Burnette was charged under the law, accused of residing with 1,000 feet of St. Mary’s Elementary School in Ballston Spa. He sought dismissal of his charges, arguing his arrest relied on an illegitimate law, but a lower court dismissed his argument.
However, Judge Scarano agreed with Burnette that state law pre-empts any local laws that are inconsistent with it.
The state law imposes less severe restrictions on sex offenders’ proximity to children, and bases those restrictions on the seriousness of the risk level assigned to the sex offender.
In his ruling, Scarano cited a variety of instances where local laws regulating the movements and residences of sexual offenders had been invalidated in court because of existing state laws.
Laws in Albany, Rensselaer, Rockland and Schenectady counties were all thrown out because judges deemed they were pre-empted by state law. The Schenectady County law, which took effect in 2007 and made Schenectady, Scotia, Niskayuna and Rotterdam virtually uninhabitable for Level 2 and 3 sex offenders, was thrown out in March 2010. In that case, the county attorney decided not to appeal.
Lawler said Saratoga County also will not appeal the recent decision. “There is considerable precedent supporting Judge Scarano’s decision,” he said, characterizing any additional defense of the law as a waste of time.
Provisions of the county law might not be gone forever, though, with Lawler leaving the door open to the possibility that the county Legislature might lobby the state Legislature to adopt similar restrictions. “These laws are more than feel-good laws,” he said.