Under the Dome

Lawmakers rewriting child sex offense law to comply with judge’s ruling

In this undated family photo provided by the Citrus County (Fla.) Sheriff's Department, Jessica Marie Lunsford is shown.
In this undated family photo provided by the Citrus County (Fla.) Sheriff's Department, Jessica Marie Lunsford is shown. AP

State lawmakers are trying to restore parts of a 2008 law that prohibited sex offenders from being near children, after a federal judge struck down the provisions in April.

The law, known as the “Jessica Lunsford Act,” was part of a wave of similar legislation in many states toughening penalties on those who assault children. It followed the 2005 rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who had spent most of her life in Gaston County before moving to Florida, where she was killed.

North Carolina’s law was challenged in federal court, where U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled that parts of it were unconstitutionally vague and overly broad, and he barred those provisions from being enforced.

Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican from Wilson, held a news conference Thursday to announce he was promoting a bill to address the judge’s findings while restoring the protections legislators intended. Newton presented a version of the bill in a Senate committee later in the day, and said it would be revised for the next meeting, on Tuesday.

“There’s nothing more important than keeping our children safe and out of the reach of dangerous sexual offenders,” Newton told the committee.

The rewrite of the law, which is inserted into an unrelated House Bill 2021, attempts to address the judge’s concern about vagueness by listing examples of places that convicted sex offenders must avoid. Those premises would include places where minors “frequently congregate” – such as arcades, amusement parks and swimming pools – when minors are present. Newton said he will add the State Fairgrounds as off limits.

The bill also attempts to overcome the judge’s finding that the law was too broad by rewriting a provision that requires offenders be no closer than 300 feet of premises intended for the care and supervision of children. The bill specifies that offenders must know there are minors present for the restriction to apply. Further, a judge must have made a determination that the offender poses or might pose a danger to minors.

The state has appealed the federal court’s ruling. If the bill passes and the appeal is successful, then North Carolina’s law would revert to its original, more restrictive law. Otherwise, the new law would go into effect in September.

Newton, who is running for attorney general, criticized the handling of the case by Roy Cooper, the Democratic incumbent in that position who is running for governor. He pointed out the judge said in his order that he had told the state’s attorneys that they had failed to prove their case in defending part of the law. Newton said it was unusual for a judge to criticize a party to a lawsuit in that way.

A spokeswoman for Cooper’s office didn’t address the judge’s remark but pointed out the state was appealing.

“Attorneys with our office are continuing to fight in court to uphold tough laws against sex offenders,” Noelle Talley said in an email.

Robin Vanderwall of Raleigh, president of the state chapter of the national advocacy group Reform Sex Offender Laws, said restrictions on going to places like the State Fair are unneeded, and perpetuate the myth that sex offenders frequently commit new crimes.

“It is patently unconstitutional to restrict a citizen’s movement and access to public areas on the basis of a conviction that may have occurred many years ago,” he said in an email.

If the bill clears the committee, it could go to the full Senate next week.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO