Attorney T. Matthew Phillips sees himself as the champion of a principle, an issue larger than any single human being--the right to be left alone.
But Phillips says he is having a hard time elevating the level of debate in Placentia, because the man he wants left alone is a convicted child molester.
"People think you're consorting with the devil when you have a child molester for a client," said Phillips, who has filed a claim against the city of Placentia on behalf of Sid Landau, 57, who has been the subject of intense scrutiny by local police and residents for three months.
"Our Constitution and our system of government protects the rights of even the most abhorrent people," Phillips said. "The most egregious crime of all is probably child molestation. It does offend me. But once the guy has done his time, you're supposed to leave him alone."
Landau moved to Placentia in December, on parole after serving eight years of a 17-year sentence for performing a lewd act on an 8-year-old Anaheim boy. It was his second conviction for molesting a boy under the age of 14.
Phillips is seeking damages from the city in response to police distribution of fliers with Landau's name, photo and address to Landau's neighbors. Because of adverse neighborhood reaction and the media attention it attracted, Landau was fired from his job and subsequently had to move to another Placentia location.
Police again distributed fliers listing Landau's new address, an apartment building that has been picketed by neighbors. His new landlord reacted by giving him 30 days' notice to move out. Phillips said he will help Landau fight eviction.
"We are slipping back into the darker elements of crime and punishment," Phillips said. "Where will it end? What about murderers? Will they have to register when they get out? How about the drunk drivers? Should there be a red flag on their car that says, 'I got a DUI ticket?' We'd all probably end up with red flags for something."
Phillips, 35, who operates out of a small Hollywood office, has spent his four years as an attorney specializing in job discrimination claims, landlord-tenant disputes and drunk-driving cases. His legal ambitions are centered on defending the "little guy" against the tyranny of an unjust majority.
In coming to the defense of Landau, Phillips has been thrust into the public eye like never before.
The publicity has come because his client is considered the first sex offender in Southern California to trigger the full effect of Megan's Law, named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was slain in New Jersey in 1994 by a convicted child molester recently released from prison.
Megan's Law allows local police to warn residents about the presence of released sex offenders in their neighborhoods. President Clinton signed a federal version of the law in May that requires states to pass similar legislation or risk losing federal aid. In July, a federal judge ruled that the notification provision of the law does not violate the civil rights of ex-convicts.
"This is new ground," said Placentia Police Det. Corinne Loomis, the department's expert on Megan's Law. "Everybody's muddling through it right now. We would prefer not to be the test case in this."
The decision by police to distribute fliers about Landau was prompted by a telephone call to the city from a state parole officer, Loomis said. "We received information regarding the parole officer's belief that Mr. Landau was a high risk to re-offend."
That a single phone call can trigger such action, Phillips argues, illustrates the fundamental problem of Megan's Law.
"The Placentia Police Department is saying that they'll take the word of a single parole agent over the word of certified mental health experts--two of them in this case--who said it's OK for him to be released. They're saying that their discretion supersedes the discretion of the state, the mental health experts and the Department of Corrections."
Placentia Mayor Norman Z. Eckenrode said the City Council wrestled with the issue before deciding to notify residents.
"Our city attorney told us that if we tell the police not to enforce Megan's Law and he does molest someone, then the parents will sue us for not enforcing the law. Or we could enforce the law and have the possibility of Mr. Landau suing us for violation of his civil rights. We decided that if we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of community safety."
The author of the California version of Megan's Law, Assemblywoman Barbara Alby (R-Fair Oaks), said there is widespread support for making a distinction between sexual offenders and other kinds of criminals.
"This is a crime that we know has unbelievably high recidivism rates, and the victims are women and children," Alby said. "It's high time we had a zero tolerance for these people."
In Alby's view, Megan's Law was needed because the criminal justice system has been too lenient toward sexual offenders.
"The system is not working. Most of these people cannot be rehabilitated, but we're letting them back out and putting them into our neighborhoods," Alby said. "They aren't your normal criminal, and they are going to commit the act again."