Editor's note: A story on Sunday gave incorrect information about the length of time Kelvin A. Price spent in prison for a 1994 felony conviction of taking indecent liberties with a child.
RALEIGH -- Released from prison after serving 10 years and four months on a felony conviction for taking indecent liberties with a child, Kelvin A. Price now lives next door to a large preschool in Southeast Raleigh.
Sitting in the plastic chair on his front porch, Price, 49, has a clear view of the children's playground less than 200 feet away.
A state law enacted in 2006 bars sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools or day care centers with three or more preschool-age children. Violation of the law is supposed to be a felony, punishable by up to three years in prison.
The East South Street address where Price has lived for at least three years is also about 800 feet from Ligon Middle School.
Immediately behind Price's little blue house is Chavis Park, with its playgrounds, public swimming pool and historic carousel - places he is barred by law from going.
A Wake County Sheriff's deputy came by a couple of years ago and ordered Price to move, but he has stayed put. "I'm not going anywhere," Price said. "And they can't make me."
He might be right.
The concept of restricting where sex offenders can live or visit might seem simple, but over the past five years, county sheriffs, prosecutors and state probation officers have sometimes struggled to implement and interpret the law.
A review by The News & Observer of the state database containing the names and addresses of nearly 13,500 sex offenders found at least 1,100 who are living closer to schools or child care centers than the law allows.
However, exceptions may allow offenders to live within the 1,000-foot limit, such as whether they were living at the address when the law took effect in December 2006.
It is up to sheriffs in North Carolina's 100 counties to determine whether a sex offender's address is in compliance.
Urban counties often use geo-mapping software, but different jurisdictions use different software providers with varying degrees of accuracy. In rural counties, it is often left to deputies simply to eyeball the distance.
"It's a complicated law," said Eddie Caldwell, a lawyer for the N.C. Sheriffs' Association. "It's a complicated societal issue for which there are no clear-cut, easy answers. The legislature has been wrestling with it for a number of years trying to figure out what's the best way to regulate these sex offenders. It's difficult."
Successful prosecutions for violating the 1,000-foot limits are rare.
From 2007 through 2010, 314 felony charges were filed against sex offenders found living too close to schools or child care centers. Prosecutors have won convictions in 61cases - less than 20 percent.
Tracy Little, a deputy secretary at the N.C. Department of Correction responsible for the supervision of those recently released from prison, said society has to deal with the fact that sex offenders typically aren't locked up for life.
"This is a very emotionally charged issue," Little said. "No one wants a child molester living in their neighborhood. But the bottom line is that once they're released into the community, they have to live somewhere."
No single government agency keeps tabs on where North Carolina's sex offenders live.
The office of Attorney General Roy Cooper maintains the statewide sex offender registry.
However, sheriff's departments provide the information in that database.
The state Division of Community Corrections tracks sex offenders on post-release supervision, typically those who have been out of prison less than five years. Of the roughly 13,500 sex offenders on the state registry, about 2,800 are under active probation.
To develop its list, the N&O used a database from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction containing the locations of public schools, and a database from the N.C. Division of Child Development, which licenses day-care facilities. The newspaper then used free mapping software from Google to plot the distance between those facilities and the homes of the state's registered sex offenders.
Though all three databases are maintained and updated by state agencies, officials said no government agency had ever put all the digitized information together.
"There's not one source we can go to," said Tim Moose, director of the state probation system. "It's so complicated, it comes down to a case-by-case basis, county-by-county."
Price's case highlights some of the complications that can arise when authorities try to force an offender to relocate.
Records show Price was charged in 2006 with failing to notify the Wake County Sheriff's Office of his address. Price said he was homeless at the time.
By 2008, Price had moved in with a family friend at the East South Street house. He was arrested again for failing to register his address with the sheriff and for being in violation of the 1,000-foot limit.
A habitual felon with more than three dozen past charges for assault, robbery, kidnapping and other infractions, Price has spent a sizable portion of his life in prison or jail. He said he has also spent time at Dorothea Dix Hospital, a state mental facility in Raleigh.
Adam Moyers, an assistant district attorney in Wake County who tried to prosecute Price on the 2006 and 2008 charges, said Price was judged to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. And because violating the sex offender restrictions is not a violent crime, Price also did not meet the criteria to be committed to a mental hospital against his will.
Unable to prosecute Price and unable to take him off the street, Moyers said, he was left with no choice but to drop the charges.
"He is in a tremendous lack of compliance," the prosecutor said. "But with him, given his capacity, if he's not capable of proceeding to trial and Dix won't hold him, he's out. And essentially judgment-proof."
Price said he sees the dismissals as validation that he never should have been convicted of the 1993 sex offense that sent him to prison. He has no intention of complying with the sex offender requirements because he is innocent, he said.
"That girl was 16 and on drugs when I did her," he said last week. "It was her birthday."
Prosecutors said the girl was underage.
If authorities could find a way to force Price out of his home, he said, he would likely go back to living on the streets.
The restrictions on where sex offenders can live have made it difficult for some to find a home once they are released from prison, especially if they live in urban areas dense with schools and day cares.
Sex offender clusters
A review of the statewide database shows sex offenders are clustering in motels, boarding houses and apartments judged to meet the restrictions. Many are in low-income neighborhoods where the rent is cheap.
"These are not ideal locations, but it is either that or they are homeless," Moose said. "We feel it is better to know where they are than to have them transient."
The registry shows 176 sex offenders registered at the addresses of homeless shelters, or even simply as "homeless" or "unknown," making it difficult for the officers charged with tracking them to know where those offenders might be on any particular day.
For example, 34 registered sex offenders list their address as the homeless shelter on South Wilmington Street in Raleigh. But it often doesn't have room for all who want to spend the night.
In addition to the residency restrictions, a second state law, enacted in 2008, prohibits those convicted of sex offenses against children from being "on the premises of any place intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors," such as schools, children's museums, child care centers and playgrounds.
The law also restricts the offender from being within 300 feet of any location intended primarily for the use of children when that place is located on the premises of a larger facility, such as a play area inside a shopping mall or "other property open to the general public."
Interpreting that law has often proved problematic.
"That's a broadly worded statute," Moyers said. "You almost can't drive up Capital Boulevard, if you are a registered sex offender, and not break that law about seven times. There's Babies R Us, Chuck E. Cheese, McDonald's with a playground."
Last month, Raleigh police arrested Jefferson B. Simmons for entering the playground of a McDonald's on Blue Ridge Road. He was convicted in 1996 of taking indecent liberties with a 14-year-old. He is awaiting trial.
Court records show that over the past two years, 480 sex offenders have been charged with violating the 2008 law. Just 72 had been convicted by the end of 2010 - a rate of 15 percent.
'Shouldn't be there'
About half a mile from Price's home on East South Street, a gray duplex stands on South East Street, which Charles Ray Faucette shares with two other convicted child molesters.
Released from prison after a conviction for raping a 10-year-old girl, Faucette lives directly across the street from a small Raleigh city park that includes a playground. The men have a clear view of the jungle gym from their front windows. Their front door is 155 feet from the slide.
Faucette said he moved to the duplex after being charged with a probation violation for living at a house too close to a day care.
"My probation officer told me to live here," said Faucette, 55. "I'm not going to get in trouble, am I?"
Little and Moose said Faucette and the other offenders living in the duplex are not in violation of the law because the 300-foot restriction does not apply to playgrounds in a city park. Both the Wake County Sheriff's Office and the Wake District Attorney's Office had signed off on the location, they said.
"Very reasonable, very intelligent people can and have differences of opinion about the interpretation of the statute," Little said.
John J. Aldridge III, the special deputy attorney general who wrote a 39-page guide to North Carolina's sex offender laws, said a playground in a city park could qualify for the 300-foot restriction under the definition of "other property open to the general public."
"We have not had any case law whatsoever interpreting that clause," Aldridge said. "Can I tell you, yes, that could be open to a park? Absolutely."
Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain who was a primary sponsor of the 2008 sex offender restrictions, said the probation officials were dead wrong.
"My belief is that the home where they are located is in violation of the statute," said Moore, a lawyer. "Those folks should be notified they are in violation so they can move. That's terrible. They shouldn't be there. This law was written to keep sex offenders from living or being in places where they could possibly exploit children."
The issue is further clouded by a 2009 court case in which two registered sex offenders living in Chatham County challenged a sheriff's order barring them from attending a church that included a day care and playground area. Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to interfere with the sex offenders' right to practice their religion.
Asked why his staff approved of three sex offenders living across the street from the Raleigh park, Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison cited Baddour's ruling.
"Since Judge Baddour struck it down, the 'living within 300 feet' would not apply," Harrison said. "He struck it down, and he is a Superior Court judge. So we don't have a leg to stand on as far as charging them with living there."
Aldridge said the judge's order dealt only with churches and is in force in Baddour's judicial district, not in Wake County.
Katherine Lewis Parker, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said law officers are not the only ones confused by the state's sex offender restrictions: Sex offenders are confused as well.
"No one knows what they can do and what they can't do," Parker said. "The sheriffs provide conflicting information depending on what county you're in."
Parker said the variability in how the statutes are applied across the state raises constitutional issues about whether sex offenders have equal protection, or equal risk, under the law.
Caldwell agreed that officers are left to use personal judgment in deciding how and where to enforce the law.
"The Highway Patrol does not typically write tickets for speeding one mile over the limit, although the law school exam answer would be that that's a violation," he said. "You have to temper the strict construction of the law with a little common sense."
News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.
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