In what is believed to be the first application of "Megan's law" in Southern California, police are notifying residents and school administrators that a convicted child molester is living in their neighborhood.
Sidney Landau, 57, moved in with friends in a quiet neighborhood here after completing an eight-year prison term for molesting an 8-year-old Anaheim boy. It was Landau's second sex crime conviction.
Placentia police started passing out fliers with Landau's name, address and photograph last month after word of his arrival spread through the neighborhood.
The reaction was swift: Unhappy parents demonstrated in front of Landau's home with signs and bullhorns; they reprinted police fliers and handed them out to children at crosswalks; and they held neighborhood meetings and called the police whenever Landau left his house.
"We want him out of here, that's for sure," said Raymond Martinez, who lives down the street from Landau and has a young grandchild living in his home. "This street is filled with children."
Landau could not be reached for comment. A man answering the door at his home said that Landau would not answer any questions.
The police acted under a controversial new law, approved by the California Legislature last year, that allows police to publicize the whereabouts of sex offenders who are released from prison.
The question of how to deal with habitual sex offenders after their release from prison has sparked debate across the country. Many parents and victims say they need to know the whereabouts of convicted molesters in order to protect themselves and their children.
Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to overturn a Kansas law allowing some habitual sex offenders to be sent to mental hospitals after their release from prison.
Some civil rights groups say such laws unfairly stigmatize and unjustly punish sex offenders after they have repaid their debts to society.
"It is fundamentally unfair," said Chris Hansen, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging Megan's law in New Jersey. That state passed the first such law after a 7-year-old girl, Megan Kanka, was raped and murdered, allegedly by a convicted child molester who moved into her neighborhood.
"In a sense," Hansen said, some sex offenders "are being punished again for the same crime. The only thing the law accomplishes is that it encourages vigilantism."
The New Jersey law, which became the model for others adopted in several states, authorizes police to notify the public of the whereabouts of convicted child molesters. Subsequent federal legislation provided incentives for states to adopt similar statutes.
Police in Placentia decided to notify Landau's neighbors that he was living nearby, even though guidelines on implementing the bill have not been circulated. A committee overseen by the state attorney general's office is currently writing those rules.
Placentia police said they went ahead because they were worried about the safety of children in the neighborhood where Landau lives. But after seeing the public reaction, some police officials also worry that harm might befall Landau and the police could be hauled into court.
"If we didn't notify the community and, God forbid, he molested a child in this community, then shame on us," Placentia police services supervisor Matt Reynolds said. "Our fear is that he will assimilate himself into the community and people will not know he is there."
Added spokesman Corinne Loomis: "We don't regret what we did one bit, but we don't want to have to spend $1 million defending a lawsuit to prove we are right."
Reynolds and others at the Placentia Police Department said they are concerned about acting alone. Since publicizing Landau's presence, they say they have received phone calls from law enforcement officials around the state who are in the process of drawing up their own guidelines.
Last year, the California Legislature approved a law requiring law enforcement agencies to make available to the public the criminal backgrounds of sex offenders. The law gives police departments discretion to notify residents when they believe there is a substantial risk that a convicted sex offender could harm someone.
"They are free to act," said Steve Telliano, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.
Placentia police say they are the first law enforcement agency in the state to carry out Megan's law to the fullest extent. Last month, the district attorney in Santa Cruz county publicly identified a parolee as a convicted child molester who had moved into a neighborhood there.
According to the attorney general's office, which knew of no other use of Megan's law in Southern California, there are 55,000 people considered "serious" sex offenders living in California. Those people have at least one conviction for rape, child molestation or a number of other crimes. There are another 1,500 in the state deemed "high-risk" offenders, meaning that they have more than one sex crime conviction.
Reynolds said there are 108 convicted sex offenders living in Placentia. He said he was told by Landau's probation officer that Landau was a "high-risk" offender. The probation officer declined to comment.
According to court and police records, Landau has been convicted and sent to prison twice for sex crimes. In 1982, Landau was convicted in Orange County on three counts of sexually molesting an Anaheim boy under 14, and sentenced to 11 years, 8 months in prison. He was released two years later.
In 1987, Landau was arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and charged with performing a lewd act on a boy under 14. The charges were dismissed.
In 1988, Anaheim police arrested Landau on 17 counts of performing a lewd act on an 8-year-old boy. The victim's family said Landau was a family friend and was baby-sitting the boy, whose father was dying of leukemia. Landau was a pallbearer at his funeral.
"This was a particularly horrible crime," said Jay Jaffee, who is close to the victim's family and testified on their behalf at Landau's sentencing hearing. "It was the ultimate act of betrayal."
Landau was convicted on all 17 counts and sentenced to prison. He served eight years and was released in November. On Nov. 21, he notified the Placentia Police Department that he was moving into the neighborhood.
Around that time, Rick Kempton, the superintendent of the Friends Christian School in Yorba Linda got a call from Landau's probation officer, who told him that Landau was moving in just a few blocks away.
Kempton sent out letters to the parents of the 450 children at the school informing them of Landau's presence.
"I got phone calls from the parents thanking me," Kempton said.
In early December, the police sent out dozens of fliers to neighbors in a three-block area around Landau. Shortly after that, a group of neighbors protested outside Landau's home. Over the next couple of weeks, the police held meetings with school officials in nearby Wagner Elementary School and in the neighborhood.
"There were a lot of horrible rumors going around," Reynolds said.
Neighbors living near Landau say they are glad they were told of Landau's presence.
"It kind of scared us," said Danny Sanchis,, who lives across the street from Landau. "I have two children. You try, but you can't keep your eye on them 24 hours a day."
The tactic used by Placentia police troubles even some who favor publicizing the presence of sex offenders. Distributing fliers is a dramatic step that may do more harm than good, according to Jo McLachlan, program coordinator at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Orange.
"It raises some human rights issues, certainly," McLachlan said. "In New Jersey, they discussed making registered sex offenders put a bumper sticker on their car. It's the same type of thing, where you open up a lot of negative possibilities."
Moreover, McLachlan worries that making one offender the subject of such an intense spotlight in a community merely creates a "boogeyman" of sorts, leaving parents and children too focused on one individual danger instead of broader safety concerns.
Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Geoff Boucher.