Park ban for sex offenders proposed

Registered sex offenders would be banned from parks and recreation centers in Mecklenburg County under a proposal being considered by county commissioners on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court upheld a similar ordinance in Woodfin, a town near Asheville that in 2005 became the first community in North Carolina to bar sex offenders from parks.

The court case was closely watched by officials across the state, and Mecklenburg commissioner Bill James said the town's win at the Supreme Court prompted him to propose a similar ban here.

“I think it is important to provide the police with as many crime-fighting tools as possible and this is another lawful tool for them to use,” James said last week. “Sex offenders … find vulnerable children next to schools, parks and recreation centers.”

Officials in Hickory and Gastonia also are considering ordinances.

Under the Mecklenburg proposal, pitched by James and drafted by the county attorney, sex offenders caught at county parks or recreation centers would be charged with a misdemeanor and face a fine of up to $500 or jail time.

Exceptions would be granted if the person is visiting the park to vote or attend a public meeting.

If the ordinance is approved by commissioners on Tuesday, it would take effect immediately.

On Sunday, commissioners Karen Bentley and Dan Ramirez said they would support James' proposal. Commissioner Norman Mitchell said he hadn't seen the proposed ordinance yet, but said “How can anyone fight against (a proposal) like that?” Other commissioners couldn't be reached on Sunday.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has lent its support to the ordinance, but it is unclear whether the policy could result in many arrests.

Officials in Woodfin and Morganton, which also has approved a park ban, said they have charged no one under their ordinances. Police in those communities have not increased their patrols to search for offenders, and often rely on residents to report suspicious behavior.

Still, Woodfin Town Administrator Jason Young said he thinks the ordinances serve as a deterrent to sex offenders.

But Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which challenged the Woodfin ordinance in court, said the policies may give a “false sense of security.” Offenses that happen in parks often are committed by people who aren't on the sex offender registry, Parker said.

“I don't think anyone would argue that protecting children is a paramount government interest,” she said. “But what our concern is these laws are sort of a knee-jerk reaction without a lot of investigation going on.”

Parker said she wishes communities considering the park ordinances would allow offenders to seek exemptions to the rules. The ordinances in Woodfin and Morganton don't allow for exemptions.

In Mecklenburg, James said sex offenders can appeal to the court system to be removed from the sex offender registry.

N.C. law prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or child care center.