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Lawmakers abandon 'safe harbors' bill

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 13 2007 12:34 a.m. MST

Lawmakers, voicing concern over property and constitutional rights, didn't take a vote on a bill that would force out sex offenders from areas within 500 feet of a school, public park, swimming pool or playground.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who is sponsoring HB375, said children need "safe harbors" where they can be free from sex offenders. To that end, Hughes has proposed a bill similar to bills passed in other states which would make it unlawful for certain convicted sex offenders to live within 500 feet of areas where children congregate.

However, similar bills have been shot down in court over constitutional questions, and Monday, Utah lawmakers also expressed concern.

Hughes told members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee that his original proposal for a 1,000-foot buffer zone around schools, parks and other places would make living in some cities for sex offenders impossible. One example was that the zones blotted out about 80 percent of Murray City, according to his studies.

The bill reads that a registered sex offender whose victim was younger than 18, or a sex offender who is registered for life because of any second offense, may not live in certain areas. If they currently reside in a restricted zone, Hughes' bill would require them to move once their lease is up or if they own a home, put their home up for sale within a year.

Committee members pelted Hughes with questions over property rights and whether they can force someone to sell their home. The issue of new schools or daycares coming into an area could force people out of their homes at any time.

The bill was also unclear about what happens if a home doesn't sell within a year or if a private playground, such as at a McDonald's restaurant, would also apply to a 500-foot buffer zone, which is roughly a football field and a half.

Hughes likened sex offenders to an alcoholic living in proximity of a liquor store and said they need to be removed from the temptation.

Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, pointed out that out of 6,900 people on the Utah Sex Offender Registry, only 3,100 are under some form of probation or parole. Litvack asked how much tax money will it take to keep track of offenders and the areas they live. The bill has no fiscal note to provide additional funding.

After being questioned numerous times on details and concerns, Hughes accused some lawmakers of taking things to "logical extremes" and said he simply wanted to protect children.

However, similar laws have met legal challenges. A similar law in Iowa was struck down as constitutional by that state's supreme court. That law required a 1,000-foot zone. Another law in Georgia is facing a legal challenge for adding school bus stops to the zones, essentially blotting out most metropolitan areas to sex offenders.

Hughes, accusing lawmakers of taking things to "logical extremes," said he plans to re-work the bill and try to bring it back for committee approval before the end of the session.


E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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