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Pennsylvania County Sex Offender Residency Ordinance Voided

by David M. Reutter

On March 20, 2009, a Pennsylvania federal district court held that an Allegheny County ordinance which restricted where sex offenders could live was in conflict with state law, and thus was invalid.

The plaintiffs in this case were a group of sex offenders whose residency was affected by the county ordinance. Their complaint alleged the ordinance violated various constitutional guarantees, the Fair Housing Act and state law. Under the ordinance, sex offenders who are required to register under what is commonly known as Megan’s Law cannot live within 2,500 feet of any child care center, school, public park or public recreation facility.

The county published a map on its website indicating where sex offenders could and could not reside. The vast major-ity of the county, and virtually all of the City of Pittsburgh, fell within an area of restricted residency. Permissible areas were generally confined to outlying, suburban communities.

After each party in the lawsuit complied with the district court’s order to file summary judgment pleadings, the court rendered its decision. In Pennsylvania, under the Home Rule doctrine, municipalities can enact local governance ordi-nances without express authorization by state statute, so long as they do not conflict with state law. A local ordinance may be preempted under one of three theories: express preemption, implied (or field) preemption, and conflict preemption.

At issue here was conflict preemption, which applies when there is an actual, material conflict between a state law and a local ordinance, and the interests of the wider constituency can only be protected by striking down the ordinance.

Allegheny County’s ordinance had a stated objective of protecting children yet it was imposed on sex offenders who never committed a crime against a minor, as Megan’s Law applies to all sex offenders regardless of the age of the victim. The intent behind the ordinance, however, was not of primary importance in the court’s conflict preemption analysis.

What was dispositive was a conflict between the operational effect of the ordinance and Pennsylvania’s uniform system of sentencing, parole and probation. Not only did the ordinance fail to include statewide goals of rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders, avoiding unnecessary incarceration and maintaining uniformity in the supervision of parol-ees and probationers, but it served as an obstacle to those goals by placing strict limits on areas where sex offenders could live.

Further, the ordinance conflicted with Pennsylvania’s explicit objective to establish a uniform, statewide system for supervision of offenders on probation and parole. For example, parole agents had to replace their statewide guidelines for offenders’ home plans with new directives to comply with Allegheny County’s ordinance.

The statewide impact of the ordinance was demonstrated by a “ripple effect” that would result in neighboring commu-nities enacting similar laws after receiving an influx of sex offenders leaving Allegheny County due to the residency restric-tions. This would leave parole officers with few options for offender placement. Finally, state law allows even the most egregious Megan’s Law offenders – sexually violent predators – to live within 2,500 feet of a school, college or day care center, provided the institution is directly notified of their presence.

Moreover, parole agents review each offender’s circumstances prior to approving their residence. The Allegheny County ordinance would overrule a determination by a parole agent (or court) that an offender’s residence was appropri-ate, due to the blanket residency restrictions.

As such, the district court predicted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would find the ordinance was preempted by state law, and thus held it was invalid and unenforceable. The court did not reach the federal issues raised by the plain-tiffs. See: Fross v. County of Allegheny, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24472.

Allegheny County has since appealed this ruling to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Related legal case

Fross v. County of Allegheny