RACINE COUNTY — At least three communities in Racine County are reviewing their sex offender residency ordinances after a federal judge found that similar rules in Pleasant Prairie were unconstitutional.
In recent weeks, the villages of Caledonia and Waterford, and the Town Yorkville have discussed tweaking their ordinances in the wake of the ruling, and pending legal challenges in other municipalities, including the City of Milwaukee.
Caledonia Village Trustee Kevin Wanggaard, who serves as the chairman of the village’s Legislative and Licensing Committee, said examining their ordinance makes sense in light of the recent ruling.
“We try to get out in front of these things,” Wanggaard said. “It’s about making sure our citizens are safe, and making sure we are doing what we need to do to be lawful.”
At issue with the ordinances under review are buffer zones that limit where registered sex offenders can live. Pleasant Prairie’s ordinance originally banned any sex offender from living within 3,000 feet of a school, park, day care or other area where children congregate. Also under review are “original domicile” restrictions that ban sex offenders from moving to a municipality if they didn’t live there when their crime was committed.
U.S. District Judge J. P. Stadtmueller ruled in April that such restrictions in Pleasant Prairie essentially banished sex offenders without providing clear evidence that the restrictions would protect their citizenry.
The village failed to provide the court with any proof that a sex offender living in the village when his or her crime took place posed any less danger than an offender who lived elsewhere at the time of their crime, Stadtmueller found.
“The ‘bare … desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest,’” wrote Stadtmueller in his decision, citing case law.
The original domicile provision violated the constitution’s ex post facto clause, because it made the punishment imposed for offenses committed before the ordinance was enacted more burdensome, Stadtmueller said.
Pleasant Prairie’s large buffer zones also violated sex offenders’ civil rights, Stadtmueller wrote.
The 3,000-feet buffer zone in place in Pleasant Prairie at the time the village was sued made 90 percent of the village off-limits to sex offenders, the court found. Even after the village changed the buffer zone to 1,500 feet in September, the ordinance still cut offenders out of 60 percent of the village’s land area and 75 percent of its residences.
Since the court’s ruling, at least two southeastern Wisconsin communities have made moves to reduce the size of their buffer zones, sometimes called “child protection” zones. Last month, a Kenosha committee recommended the city reduce its buffer zones from 2,500 to 1,000 feet from a protected location. And in the City of Waukesha, a committee recently recommended the city reduce its buffer zones from 1,500 to 750 feet.
Waterford leaders are looking at everything in the village’s sex offender ordinance that could be construed as unconstitutional. Modeled after Milwaukee’s ordinance, which is now being challenged in court, Waterford’s law bans sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a protected location.
“I think it is important for us to go back and look at our ordinance. I want to bring back a revised ordinance that changes some of the provisions that have been called unconstitutional,” Village Attorney Marcia Hasenstab recently told the Village Board.
An adjustment to buffer zones could also be on the table in Caledonia and Waterford.
Under Caledonia’s current ordinance, sex offenders who were not living in Caledonia at the time their offense are banned from living within 2,500 feet of a protected area. In Yorkville, the buffer zone is 1,500 feet.
Aside from reviewing buffer zones and original domicile language, leaders in Caledonia and Yorkville are also looking at the addition of an appeals process that would allow sex offenders to seek special permission to live in areas that would normally be off-limit.
In Yorkville, which was recently sued by a Kenosha sex offender over its original domicile restriction, Town Chairman Peter Hansen said town officials are looking at adding a waiver opportunity that would allow a sex offender to go to “a committee to have their case reviewed.”
The City of Racine, which passed its sex offender residency ordinance in April 2013, has used such a process successfully for more than four years. Since then the city’s Sex Offender Residency Appeals Board has fielded 108 appeals — 10 of which have been denied, and five that have yet to be heard. In that time, no registered sex offender has formally complained about the process, which was modeled after Green Bay’s ordinance, said Stacey Salvo, a paralegal in the Racine City Attorney’s Office.
In Caledonia, Wanggaard said his committee should start reviewing possible changes to the ordinance as early as next month.
“With any ordinance of this nature you are always doing adjustments as time goes on ... It is always good to look at everything we are doing,” Wanggaard said.
– Journal Times reporter Jon Brines contributed to this report.