Judge to decide whether Barre can limit where sex offenders live

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(Host) A Superior Court judge must decide whether the city of Barre has the authority to limit where sex offenders can live.

The case is the first in Vermont to challenge local ordinances aimed at keeping sex offenders away from schools and playgrounds.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union brought the case on behalf of Christopher Hagan, a 29-year-old Barre resident.

Eight years ago, Hagan pleaded guilty to an offense involving a 15-year-old girl. Hagan was 18 at the time the crime was committed. He served time in prison, successfully completed the state’s sex offender treatment program, and is considered a low-risk to re-offend.

Hagan is now married and lives in Barre with his wife Amy and their two children. Hagan’s apartment is within 1,000 feet of a playground. And this spring, the city told him he’d have to move.

Dan Barrett is Hagan’s lawyer.

He told the court that Barre’s ordinance is illegal, since the Legislature never granted the city the right to impose residency restrictions.

(Barrett) "There is no pre-existing general power of municipalities in Vermont to legislate on the subject of where individuals may live."

(Dillon) Barrett said Hagan is unemployed, and can’t afford to pay the $500 a day fine the city could impose for violating its ordinance. Barrett says if Hagan is forced to move, he’d be homeless.

(Barrett)  "Chris lives in Barre with his family and he has nowhere else to go and neither he nor his family can afford to go elsewhere."

(Dillon) But Oliver Twombly, the lawyer representing Barre, said Hagan brought the problem on himself. He said the family knew about the restrictive ordinance but chose to rent the apartment anyway.

(Twombly)  "This is a self-created crisis, in the sense that at the time the Hagans moved into the apartment they had reason to know that there was some concern that this tenancy might violate a law."

(Dillon) And Twombly said the city’s ordinance is legal under the general concept of nuisance law, which allows the city to protect public rights.

(Twombly) "The right of parents to feel secure that their children, in locations where children will be at – schools, playgrounds, daycares – the ability to enjoy the comfort and feeling that they’re safe."

(Dillon) But outside the courtroom, Allen Gilbert, director of the Vermont ACLU, said ordinances like the one in Barre promote a false sense of security. He said the legislature this year discouraged towns from passing these kinds of laws.

(Gilbert) "There’s been a problem from the very beginning of the passage of sex offender legislation where oftentimes either the legislature or the municipality passes something, adopts an ordinance, that makes people feel like they’re safer. But the reality is that they’re not safer. It’s simply a show that tries to reassure people that things are better, when in fact public safety has not been increased."

(Dillon) The city has agreed to hold off enforcing the ordinance until early next month. And Judge Helen Toor said she would decide the case quickly.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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