A convicted rapist who faces eviction from his Costa Mesa apartment complex after police distributed fliers warning neighbors of his presence is fighting to keep his home in a case that tests the limits of Megan's Law.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey T. Glass is considering the case, which marks a rare occasion in which a sex offender has fought to stay in his neighborhood despite the uproar.
Legal experts say it could trigger several rounds of legal battles as courts wrestle with trying to balance the constitutional rights of former convicts with the community's right to protect itself against potential harm.
Under Megan's Law, police agencies are permitted to inform citizens when a "high risk" sex offender is living near them. But it also sets limits on how the information is used and prohibits discrimination or harassment against the offender.
"This illustrates how Megan's Law, which allows only the dissemination of information, can be potentially used to attempt to remove a person from a neighborhood," said Robert Pugsley, a professor at the Southwestern University College of Law.
"Some court will have to reconcile the policy behind the law with the sometimes practical outcomes of the law, which can lead to harassment or the removal of a person from a living place," he added.
At the center of the case is Chris Decker, 44, who in September was ordered to move from the two-bedroom, West Wilson Street apartment he shares with a roommate. The notice came one day after Costa Mesa police distributed fliers in the area that identified him as a sex offender.
Decker's attorney, T. Matthew Phillips, argued in court this week that the threatened eviction constituted an unjustified, "vigilante" reprisal against a man who had paid his debt to society and wanted to live in peace.
Decker, who was convicted of the 1977 rape of a Garden Grove woman, was paying his $795 rent on time and lived without incident for seven months in the 24-unit apartment complex, Phillips said.
Decker's landlord, Robert Stellrecht Jr., said in court that he felt an obligation to protect his tenants, several of whom he said had expressed concern about Decker.
He said tenants, most of them female, had complained about unwanted sexual advances and uninvited touching from Decker. Phillips strongly denies the charges, calling them "phantom" complaints designed to help get his client evicted.
The landlord said no reason was needed to give Decker a 30-day notice because Decker had a month-to-month lease. But he did say the complaints and the Megan's Law fliers influenced his decision.
"The more complaints I got, the more uneasy I felt," he said.
Out of about 110 sex offenders living in Costa Mesa, Decker is the only one classified by the state Department of Justice as "high risk," according to police. Countywide, law enforcement agencies have publicized information on several high-risk people, and on at least four occasions community members have rallied to oust the offenders from their neighborhoods.
Child molester Sidney Landau has been forced to move out of several North County neighborhoods because of publicity over Megan's Law. Each time he moves to a new motel, police send out fliers and neighbors stage protests.
For the most part the molesters and rapists have bowed to community pressures. Decker, however, is standing firm.
"If landlords are allowed to evict sex offenders, you're going to have a class of itinerant sex offenders living in Orange County," Phillips said.
Decker remains an official resident of the apartment complex until the case is resolved. But since October, he has been serving a four-month prison sentence on a parole violation for drug use. He was unavailable for comment.
His father, a Dana Point resident who asked that his name not be used, said his son is an ordained minister who had been trying to lead a productive life when residents learned of his past.
"He was on the right road until they passed out that flier. It tore him apart," he said.
The judge is expected to make his decision today.