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Critics of Carson's sex offender laws say they are too strict

Carson is fighting a suit that says it reneged on its promise to revise its sex offender laws

For Frank Lindsay, the city of Carson feels like an obstacle course whenever he visits his relatives.

He makes sure to stay clear of all city parks. If he's hungry, he avoids the local McDonald's, which includes a playground for toddlers. The library, where children have reading time, is off-limits. So is the local mall, which has a play lighthouse for youngsters to climb.

Lindsay, a convicted child molester, is one of the targets of a Carson ordinance that is among the toughest in the state.

The ordinance goes further than California's already strict limits on where sex offenders can live to ban them from loitering in "child safety zones" — areas within 300 feet of a host of areas where children might congregate. Those include child-care centers, schools, parks, swimming pools, libraries and businesses that provide children's play areas.

The city's rules are popular among residents but are now the focus of a legal battle in which Lindsay and a sex offenders' rights group say they infringe on the rights of sex offenders. Lindsay, who says he visits his ex-wife and her mother in Carson a couple of times a year, complains that he lives in fear of being arrested for accidentally entering an off-limits area and being accused of loitering.

"I'm afraid to move about town freely," he said. "I'm not a monster.... If they understood what we are going through, I don't believe there is a rational person who would say this is fair."

Scores of cities enacted similar ordinances in recent years but repealed them in the face of lawsuits by California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a nonprofit group that advocates restoring civil rights for offenders in the wake of an appellate court decision last year that struck down a similar set of laws in Irvine.

All except Carson.

City officials say that they are refusing to back down and that the ordinance is necessary to protect children.

They have vowed to fight the legal challenge all the way to the California Supreme Court if necessary and say that they plan to support a change in state law so that Carson can keep its ordinance. If Carson prevails or new legislation is approved, cities and counties across the state would be free to draft their own laws that restrict the movement of offenders.

"Someone had to have the courage to challenge it, take it to the court and fight," City Councilman Al Robles said. "Sooner or later, the law — whether it be by a judge or legislation — will come to see it the way we do in Carson."

The dispute comes amid continuing questions over whether California's strict approach to regulating convicted sex offenders is effective at protecting public safety.

There are about 98,000 convicted sex offenders registered in California, one of four states that require someone to stay on the list for life. A 2006 ballot measure prohibits those on the registry from living within 2,000 feet of a park or a school, pushing many sex offenders into remote locales or industrial areas.

Last year, the California Sex Offender Management Board — a state panel that includes law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges and victims rights advocates — issued a report saying that rules limiting where sex offenders live can prevent them from finding housing and jobs, which could "exacerbate risk factors thereby actually increasing an offender's level of risk for re-offense."

Research has not found any link between the registry and a decrease in sex crimes, the report said. About 95% of solved sex crimes, the board said, are committed by people never previously identified as sex offenders.

In Carson, city officials found in 2008 that multiple sex offenders, driven from many areas by state law, were living together in hotels and rental properties away from schools and parks but still in areas of the city populated by families. The result, officials said, was an "over-concentration of sex offenders" in small areas of the city, alarming residents.

The council adopted its ordinance to break up those clusters by preventing sex offenders from living together and by placing limits on how many units landlords could rent to sex offenders at a time, among other restrictions. The new ordinance also created "child-safety zones" that regulate where sex offenders could loiter. Violators faced fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

About 75 other municipalities enacted similar regulations, Carson's city attorney said.

Such ordinances cut wide swaths through cities, creating an inconsistent patchwork of off-limits areas that are difficult to navigate, said Janice Bellucci, an attorney and president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws.

"It causes this chilling effect where people on the registry are afraid to go anywhere," Bellucci said. "We have people who felt like they were kept in a cage."

Last year, a state appeals court struck down an Irvine ordinance that banned registered sex offenders from entering city parks and recreation centers without permission from police. The court decided that state laws regulate sex offenders and noted that California's Constitution prohibits cities and counties from creating new rules on matters that the state already regulates.

The California Supreme Court let the decision stand.

Bellucci alerted cities that their ordinances were invalid. About 50 repealed or revised their laws without litigation. Others relented after she filed lawsuits against them.

"If you can't learn the easy way, then we're going to teach you the hard way," she said.

In April, she filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lindsay, who is listed on the state's online registry as having a 1979 conviction for lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14. Lindsay, 62, declined to detail what led to the conviction.

The city initially agreed to settle the suit for $3,000 and to revise the law. The City Council, however, balked. Bellucci has now sued the city for fraud and breach of contract, accusing the council of reneging on its promise and is again challenging the legality of the ordinance.

She said the council's refusal to follow the appellate court's decision amounts to little more than political posturing that wastes taxpayer dollars.

Robles said the city manager lacked the authority to settle the lawsuit. Robles said that he and the rest of the council refuse to budge when it comes to the safety of children.

"All these cities were capitulating and giving in to her," Robles said. "Then she came to Carson."

Carson's city attorney, Sunny Soltani, a partner at Aleshire & Wynder, said the city is willing to do whatever it takes to regulate registered sex offenders. Carson's ordinance is substantially different from the one struck down in Irvine, she said. She also noted that the case was decided by the 4th District Court of Appeals, whereas Carson lies in the 2nd District, whose appellate court could reach a different decision.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Bill Brough (R-Dana Point) introduced legislation last month that would allow cities and counties to enact their own regulations of sex offenders that go beyond state law.

The legal battle in Carson has continued even though the captain of the local Los Angeles County sheriff's station said he had not heard of anyone being arrested or cited under the ordinance.

Nevertheless, the regulation is popular with residents.

On a recent afternoon, children bounced into the Carson Library after an elementary school let out down the street. The children ran through the aisles and some appeared to be on their own.

Binh Griffin, an accountant who lives in Carson, picked out books with her two children for the weekend. Binh frequents the library with her children and was not aware of the ordinance. She said she supported the idea of doing whatever possible to keep sex offenders from the library.

"I know it's a fine line, but I would still err on the side of caution," she said.

At Carson's SouthBay Pavilion, Amber and Victor Cervantes watched over their month-old daughter as their 3-year-old ran about a play area in the middle of the mall.

The couple said they are thrilled that Carson will fight to keep the law.

"They shouldn't be anywhere near kids," he said, referring to those on the sex offender registry.

As parents of two girls, they said they fear that their children could become targets.

"It makes me feel better that my kids are growing up in Carson," Amber said.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Twitter: @sjceasar

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