New York State Court of Appeals

The state’s highest court has ruled that counties and towns cannot impose residency restrictions on registered sex offenders because the local authority to do so is preempted by state law.

In a Feb. 17 ruling, the N.Y. Court of Appeals dismissed a criminal charge brought against a registered sex offender for violating a Nassau County ordinance prohibiting registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school. The Nassau County code attempted to impose a residency restriction on all registered sex offenders, which went further than state law, which restricts level two and three offenders only.

Counties and towns across the state, including Suffolk County and the Town of Riverhead, have sought to restrict where registered sex offenders may live, imposing minimum distances from schools, day care centers, playgrounds and parks. The court decision this month renders those local ordinances unenforceable.

“We hold that the state’s comprehensive and detailed statutory and regulatory framework for the identification, regulation and monitoring of registered sex offenders prohibits the enactment of a residency restriction law such as Local Law 4,” Judge Eugene Pigott wrote for the court.

“Our communities are better protected by a statewide, evidence-based approach governing where people registered for sex offenses can live and go,” said Dana Wolfe, a lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case arguing for the dismissal of a criminal charge brought by Nassau County against Michael Diack.

“Confusing and overlapping local laws cause transience, homelessness, instability and other obstacles to treatment which threaten, rather than advance, public safety,” Wolfe said.

The “proliferation of well-intentioned local ordinances imposing residency restriction has hampered the ability of the state and local authorities to address the difficulty in finding appropriate housing for sex offenders,” according to the court decision in People v. Diack.

Local regulations helped created a large population of homeless sex offenders in Suffolk County, according to critics.

“We basically zoned them out of existence,” Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) said yesterday. “There was no place for anybody to legally live.”

Schneiderman’s Second Legislative District ended up playing unwilling host to two trailers used by the county to provide emergency shelter for homeless registered sex offenders. Schneiderman, along with former First District legislator Ed Romaine and town officials, fought the county’s trailers policy for years. The county’s use of the trailers ended in 2013 after the county implemented a new monitoring and enforcement program in partnership with the nonprofit Parents for Megan’s Law group.

The court’s ruling was anticipated, a spokesperson for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

“That’s why we took the approach of monitoring and enforcement,” Bellone spokesperson Justin Meyers said. “We implemented the toughest sex offender monitoring and enforcement program in the nation.”

Though laws restricting residency are void under the court’s decision, it does not affect Suffolk’s monitoring and enforcement program, Meyers said.

Under Suffolk’s program, Parents for Megan’s Law staff members verify residence and work addresses reported by the county’s registered sex offenders.

“They are monitoring everybody on a daily basis. They are checking in every single day,” Meyers said.

Homeless sex offenders are also being moved frequently. “A sex offender is never in one place for more than a few days,” Meyers said.

Bill O’Leary, a licensed therapist under contract with the state division of parole to treat paroled sex offenders calls the county’s monitoring and enforcement program “a huge disservice to parents and taxpayers and an insult to law enforcement.”

The program is costing the county $900,000 per year under a three-year contract signed in 2013 with the Parents for Megan’s Law group. The organization is responsible for monitoring the whereabouts of registered sex offenders and making sure they are registering with law enforcement agencies as required. It is also responsible for social media monitoring, community outreach and education and providing services to crime victims, according to the terms of the contract.

“Ninety-five percent of the people who commit these crimes are not on the registry,” O’Leary said. “They are not people who are known to law enforcement, but they are known to their victims,” he said. “We should put our efforts there, in sex abuse prevention and education.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.