ATLANTA – Georgia's top court overturned a state law Wednesday that banned registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, churches and other areas where children congregate.
"It is apparent that there is no place in Georgia where a registered sex offender can live without being continually at risk of being ejected," read the unanimous opinion, written by presiding Justice Carol Hunstein.
The law had been targeted by civil rights groups who argued it would render vast residential areas off-limits to Georgia's roughly 11,000 registered sex offenders and could backfire by encouraging offenders to stop reporting their whereabouts to authorities.
State lawmakers adopted the law in 2006, calling it crucial to protecting the state's most vulnerable population: children.
Georgia's law, which took effect last year, prohibited them from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather — schools, churches, parks, gyms, swimming pools or one of the state's 150,000 school bus stops.
It also led to challenges from groups like the Southern Center for Human Rights, which argued that it would force some offenders to live in their cars or set up tents or trailers in the woods, and undermine other efforts to keep track of offenders.
The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Jerry Keen, said the court "superseded both the legislative and executive branches of government, and therefore the will of the people of Georgia."
He said state lawmakers could take up the issue again when they reconvene in January.
"In the meantime, convicted felony sex offenders will be allowed to live next door to day care centers, school bus stops, or anywhere else they choose," the Republican lawmaker said.
Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, praised the decision.
"It's a strongly worded ruling that says we value property rights in this state and you can't just take them away," she said.
Twenty-two states have distance restrictions varying from 500 feet to 2,000 feet, according to researchers. But most impose the offender-free zones only around schools, and several apply only to child molesters, not all sex offenders.
The Georgia Supreme Court ruling said even sex offenders who comply with the law "face the possibility of being repeatedly uprooted and forced to abandon homes." It noted that the offender would be in violation of the law whenever someone opts to open a school, church or other facility serving children near the offender's home.
The court also said the statute looms over every location that a sex offender chooses to call home and notes while the case in question particularly involves a day care center, "next time it could be a playground, a school bus stop, a skating rink or a church."
Provisions that also ban sex offenders from loitering and working within 1,000 feet of those places were not reversed.
A judge ruled last year that the law's school bus stop provision could not be enforced unless school boards officially designated the stops. Few boards have since done so.