Local Issues

Sex Offenders & Rental Housing

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03.15.2010

In California, there are two primary sex offender laws that impact rental housing: Megan’s Law and Jessica’s Law.

Megan’s Law – Sex Offender Registry

In 2005, Assembly Bill 488 (D – Parra) expanded the scope of California’s Megan’s Law by requiring information about sex offenders to be available on the Internet.  Along with other information, the state’s Megan’s Law Web site lists the registered home address of those sex offenders who fall under a specified category of offenses, generally believed to be the most serious offenses.

This has led to the discovery by many members of the general public that their neighbors are registered sex offenders.  At an apartment complex, a resident may be sharing a wall with a registered sex offender.  Naturally, many people are disturbed to find out that they live so close to persons convicted of serious crimes, and they demand to know what their landlords can do about it.

Unfortunately, current California law places landlords in a lose-lose situation on this issue.  On the one hand, the law provides that owners may be held liable for failing to protect a tenant from a known risk.  On the other hand, Megan’s Law itself prohibits an owner from using the information obtained on the Web site to discriminate against a sex offender, including evicting or denying a person housing based on that information.  Additionally, even though a landlord is required to indicate in rental and lease agreements that the Megan’s Law database may be found on the Department of Justice’s Web site, a landlord cannot warn other residents based on the online database information without the risk of being sued for discrimination or harassment.  If found in violation of these provisions of Megan’s Law, a landlord could face fines up to $25,000.

Industry Response to Megan’s Law

The SDCAA,  has pushed for state legislation that would allow landlords the ability to deny or evict housing to a person listed on the Megan’s Law Web site by clarifying that they pose a risk to rental property residents and that they are not members of a protected class.  The industry would also like clarification that landlords cannot be sued by a sex offender if he or she decides to protect a person at risk by informing the person about the sex offender.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been unsuccessful because of the unavoidable questions about where released sex offenders will live if landlords are given the ability to evict and deny them housing.  There also has been concern about the potential overflow of sex offenders into certain neighborhoods or communities.  This echoes the problems associated with Jessica’s Law…

Jessica’s Law – Sex Offender Residence Restrictions

In November 2006, California voters passed Proposition 83, also known as Jessica’s Law.  The law toughened sanctions against sex offenders and bars them from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park.  But the law is vague and has holes, making it nearly impossible to enforce.  For example, the law doesn’t specify whether residence restrictions apply to all convicted sex offenders or only to those who were convicted or paroled after it passed.  And, there are no penalties for violating the restrictions.

The legality of Jessica’s Law was challenged in the California Supreme Court.  On Feb. 1, 2010, the court ruled that the state can continue restricting convicted sex offenders from living near parks, schools and other spots where children gather, though it avoided a decision about the law’s retroactivity.

In San Diego County, six cities have enacted local ordinances that similarly restrict where convicted offenders can live or loiter (though they each may have slight variations): San Diego, Chula Vista, National City, La Mesa, Santee and San Marcos.  The county of San Diego and the Padre Dam Municipal Water District — which oversees Santee Lakes — also have similar ordinances.  Each makes a violation a misdemeanor.  None had been enforcing the residency restrictions prior the Supreme Court decision, and it remains to be seen how the recent ruling will change this.

The residency restriction laws place responsibility for violations on the sex offender, not the landlord.  Owners and managers who wish to implement a policy to exclude those who are prohibited by Jessica's Law from living in their units should consult with an attorney before taking any action.  But Jessica’s Law raises the same logistical concerns about where sex offenders will live as the industry’s proposed reforms to Megan’s Law.  Specifically, a 2007 San Diego County District Attorney’s Office study concluded that residence restrictions eliminated 72 percent of the residential parcels in the county.

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