The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 11:59 am

Sex offender fights restraint law

Rebecca S. Green The Journal Gazette

Convicted sex offender Brian Valenti would like to take his daughter bowling. And to church.

And although it’s been more than 20 years since he was convicted of the crime in Los Angeles County, California, the 47-year-old Blackford County man is prohibited from doing those and other activities with his daughter because of a Hartford City ordinance.

Valenti is a registered sex offender, and under Indiana law is prohibited from living within so many feet of certain places where children congregate. Hartford City’s ordinance keeps him out of child safety zones.

Valenti wants those freedoms back and, alongside the ACLU of Indiana, is fighting the small Blackford County city, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne.

Hartford City’s ordinance appears to be the only one of its kind in the northern section of the state. Similar ordinances in other states are being challenged in court and their efficacy is debated by experts and law enforcement. Locally, those in charge of the sex offender registry don’t want to see Fort Wayne or Allen County take a similar tack. 

Messages left for the Hartford City attorney and the ACLU seeking additional comment were not returned.

A step further

Enacted in 2008, the Hartford City ordinance is to protect from the "extreme threat to the health, safety, and welfare of children" posed by sex offenders who are required to register. 

The ordinance is designed to create areas around locations where children regularly congregate, and prohibits registered sex offenders from loitering or establishing residence in those areas.

The ordinance prohibits residency within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, playgrounds, child care institutions or other places where children regularly congregate. Such a prohibition is consistent with state law.

But Hartford City took its ordinance a step further. It bans registered sex offenders from loitering within 300 feet of the "child safety zones" and bars them from entering the premises of these places. It defines loitering as "standing or sitting idly."

The ordinance identifies child safety zones as public parks, private and public schools, public libraries, amusement arcades, video arcades, indoor and outdoor amusement centers, amusement parks, public or commercial or semiprivate swimming pools, child care facilities, child care institutions, public or private athletic complexes, crisis shelters or centers, bowling alleys, skate parks or rinks, public or private youth centers, movie theaters, Scouting facilities or offices of child protective services.

Those caught violating the ordinance are given a $200 fine. According to court records, Valenti was ticketed for violating the ordinance just days after he filed his lawsuit.

On Jan. 23, a Hartford City police officer ticketed Valenti as he waited in his brother’s car across the street from a school, waiting to pick up his child. 

"He does not believe he was in the vehicle ‘idly,’ although, admittedly, he does not know what that word means," Valenti’s attorney, Kenneth Falk, wrote in the lawsuit. "There are numerous other areas throughout Hartford City, such as homes that are licensed to provide day care, near which he may not ‘loiter’. In addition to not knowing what ‘loiter’ means, he also does not know the location of all these areas.

"Moreover, the inability to ‘loiter’ near Child Safety Zones is burdensome," Falk continued. "He is unable to wait for his child, for example, if (the child) were to go bowling or were to join the YMCA, because he cannot even stay in these locations’ parking lots."

According to the lawsuit, Valenti’s wife is disabled and cannot drive.

In his lawsuit, Valenti claims the ordinance is vague, arbitrary, and irrational, and in violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to U.S. Constitution.

He also alleges it represents unconstitutional retroactive punishment, also in violation of the U.S. Constitution as well as the Indiana Constitution.

Because he is unable to attend church, under the advice of law enforcement because of the law, Valenti also alleges the ordinance violates his rights to freely practice his religion.

And when he tries to vote in person in an election, he is prohibited from doing that as well, as his polling place is located inside an elementary school. That, Valenti, said is a violation of another constitutional right.

He is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions to keep the ordinance from being enforced, as well as costs and damages.

Adding rules

In Allen County, Sheriff’s Department Cpl. and Detective Jeff Shimkus is one of the people responsible for monitoring the sex offender registry. 

He is not a fan of the registry restrictions, and he believes the idea of child safety zones is crazy. To his knowledge, no other community in northeastern Indiana has enacted such a rule.

"It is really, really difficult for these people to find some place to live," Shimkus said. "We do not need to add any more logistical problems to the registry. It really makes it difficult for them to reintegrate into the society and have some kind of normal life."

"You keep adding rules and adding rules," he continued. "That could cause someone to give up and act out."

Why should an offender, who has obeyed the law and served his or her time and not re-offended, be prohibited from attending a grandchild’s school play, he asked.

Shimkus would rather have a registered sex offender living next to his home, and next to an elementary school, than have a sex offender choose not to register in order to have an easier time finding a place to live.

The registry is about narrowing the victim pool, by saying to parents, look this is not the person you want to hire as a baby sitter. It is to give information, to place flags around the mines in the minefield, he said.

"The main thing is that parents need to be parents," Shimkus said.

Thomas Stucky, an associate professor at IUPUI and the director of criminal justice and public safety programs, has been researching this issue for years.

And research, his and others, have been pretty consistent on the effectiveness of registries and other highly-restrictive laws concerning sex offenders.

They are not as effective in preventing sex crimes as they are intended to, he said.

He said such laws come out of the public’s desire to know their risks. But such logic is often faulty because there is frequently an assumption that those on the lists are the only dangers.

"There are clearly people who their desire is to commit sex offenses. Those people are a danger to the public. There’s no question about that," Stucky said. To assume that those are the people on the registry is dangerous, he said.

Even the most serious offender will at some point in their life likely stop the behavior. According to Indiana court records, Valenti’s name appears only in his recent ticket handed to him by Hartford City police.

At some point, a person’s past behavior becomes less and less predictive of their future behavior, Stucky said.

But it is very difficult in today’s society for those individuals to climb out of that "always and forever a felon" category.

"We put a lot of roadblocks in place for people to follow the law after they have gotten out of prison," he said. "The more roadblocks you put in front of people to follow the law, the less likely they are to do that."

Sex offender registries are but one tool in combating sex crimes.

"The tragedy is that you are focused so much on physical proximity question," Stucky said. "If I thought that actually did what it was purported to do, then I would support it. The data just doesn’t support it. This is in no way to try to impact the victimization of the victims," Stucky continued. "The goal is to try to find the most effective public policy  to reduce victimization." 

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