ATLANTA – Georgia's top court ruled Monday that a provision in Georgia's strict new sex offender law is unconstitutional because it fails to tell homeless offenders how they can comply with the law.
The law is designed to keep sex offenders away from children by monitoring how close they live to schools, parks and other spots where kids gather. But critics say it unfairly subjects homeless offenders to a life sentence if they fail to register a home address.
The Georgia Supreme Court's 6-1 decision Monday found the law's registration requirements were "unconstitutionally vague." The opinion also held that homeless offenders are not exempt from the statute, and suggested special reporting requirements for the homeless.
The case involves William James Santos, a homeless man and convicted sex offender who was kicked out of a Gainesville homeless shelter in July 2006 and was arrested three months later on charges he failed to register with Georgia's sex offender list.
His lawyers say the law creates a guessing game for Santos and other homeless offenders because it bars them from giving a post office box or simply saying they are homeless.
They argued that homeless offenders will become victims of the tough penalties which call for a mandatory life in prison sentence for offenders who fail to register their address for a second time.
Prosecutors warn that offenders could take advantage of the loophole and report themselves as homeless to defeat the purpose of the measure.
Assistant district attorney Vanessa Sykes conceded during the hearing that the measure can lead to a cumbersome process. Homeless offenders who move from spot to spot each night would have to notify the local sheriff's department each time, she said.
The court's 7-page ruling concluded that address registration requirements for Santos and other homeless offenders with no addresses are unconstitutional. But it made clear that it does not exempt homeless offenders from reporting other information required by the statute, nor does it exempt those who are able to provide an address such as a shelter.
It cites five states where registration laws have special provisions for the homeless, including California, which requires transient offenders with no address to report their whereabouts to law enforcement officials each month.
But the Georgia statute offers homeless sex offenders without an address no guidance on how to register, the ruling says, "thus leaving them to guess as to how to achieve compliance with the statute's reporting provisions."
In his dissent, Justice George Carley contended that the law does not require a sex offender to have an address, but only to report the address if he has one. He urged state legislators to enact more specific registration requirements for offenders without an address.
The Santos challenge is among a growing number of cases targeting Georgia's sex offender law, which sponsors declared one of the toughest in the nation when it was adopted in 2006.
It bans sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather. That includes schools, churches, parks, gyms, swimming pools or one of the state's 150,000 school bus stops.
Since it was adopted, though, it has been under attack.
The Georgia Supreme Court struck down an earlier version of the law in November 2007, ruling that it failed to protect the property rights of sex offenders because it would have forced them to move if a facility catering to children opens near their home.
Legislators have retooled the measure to meet the court's concerns, but other provisions are now in critics' crosshairs.
The Georgia court in June heard arguments targeting a provision that mandates a life prison sentence for sex offenders who twice fail to register. A ruling could come within weeks.
And federal judges are considering a lawsuit that claims a provision banning sex offenders from volunteering at churches is illegal and another that challenges a part of the law that would evict offenders who live near churches and school bus stops.