New Jersey towns cannot ban sex offenders from living near schools, parks, or other places where children gather, a state appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
The three-judge panel found that New Jersey's Megan's Law was "pervasive and comprehensive" and should be the only law governing how sex offenders are treated. The ruling upheld findings by judges who invalidated ordinances in Cherry Hill and Galloway townships.
Supporters of those ordinances hoped the towns would appeal. Richard D. Pompelio, a lawyer for the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center, filed a brief endorsing the town's laws.
He questioned how Megan's Law, which requires sex offenders to register with the state, was pre-empted because it does not impose residency restrictions.
The towns banned adults convicted of sex offenses against a child from living within 2,500 feet of any school, park, playground, church or other place "where children might congregate."
Similar laws are in place in many states and dozens of New Jersey towns; those in New Jersey will be at risk if the latest ruling stands.
Appellate Judge Joseph F. Lisa, writing for the court, said the Cherry Hill and Galloway ordinances "interfere with and frustrate the purposes and operation of the statewide scheme."
Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt was considering whether to appeal the ruling and maintained that the ordinance "is valuable to our community," spokesman Dan Keashen said.
A message seeking comment from Galloway officials was not immediately returned.
The ruling was applauded by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had a volunteer attorney represent one of the offenders.
"Megan's Law is already accepted as constitutional and as the state's comprehensive approach to sex offenders. The residency requirements do not contribute to rehabilitation and may in fact undermine it," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the state chapter.
State Public Defender Yvonne Smith Segars filed a brief urging the appeals court to strike down the laws.
"You can't impose unrealistic burdens on people and expect them to reintegrate. They paid their debt to society and are under supervision," Segars said.
The Cherry Hill law was challenged by two sex offenders convicted of violating the law after being placed in a motel by welfare officers with the approval of their probation and parole officers. The two men were considered at moderate risk of committing another sex offense.
A 20-year-old college freshman at Richard Stockton College, in Galloway Township, challenged the law there after moving into a dormitory on campus. The student was considered a low-risk sex offender for an offense he committed when he was 15 against a 13-year-old girl.
Calls to attorneys for the men were not immediately returned.
The three men were among about 11,000 sex offenders registered in New Jersey, the first state to enact a Megan's Law. It was passed after a 7-year-old Hamilton Township girl, Megan Kanka, was killed in 1994 by a sex offender who lived in her neighborhood. Similar laws in other states and eventually the nation followed.
In New Jersey, neighbors of high-risk offenders are notified by police.