Park ban for sex offenders expected

Mecklenburg County commissioners are expected tonight to support banning registered sex offenders from county parks and recreation centers, though some commissioners said they still had questions about how a proposed ordinance would be enforced.

The expected vote comes one month after commissioners delayed taking action on the ordinance to give members, as well as police and park officials, more time to wade through the proposal.

Under the ordinance, sex offenders caught at a county park site could be charged with a misdemeanor and face a fine of up to $500 or jail time. Exceptions would be granted for people going to vote or attend a public meeting.

The ordinance was pitched by Commissioner Bill James and modeled after one in Woodfin. The town, near Asheville, was the first in the state to ban sex offenders from parks, and the state Supreme Court upheld the three-year-old ordinance in June.

James said the ordinance would be another tool for police officers to help keep children safe. “I don't think that there is any legitimate reason not to adopt it,” he said.

On Monday, commissioners Jennifer Roberts and Norman Mitchell said they plan to support the ordinance, and others have already said they back it. It would need at least five votes to pass. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe and Park and Recreation Director Jim Garges support it.

There are 625 registered sex offenders in the county. Currently, state law prohibits the offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or child care center.

The proposed Mecklenburg County ordinance would cover 210 park sites, spanning more than 17,600 acres.

During the past month, county and police officials have ironed out details of the ordinance, especially on how to implement the new rules.

Under the proposal, an officer could detain a person if the officer “reasonably believes, or has probable cause to believe” the person is a registered sex offender or is committing a crime that, if convicted, would require him to register as an offender. The officer then would be allowed to detain the person for a “reasonable amount of time” to check his status as a sex offender.

In other communities with similar ordinances, police often rely on residents to report suspicious behavior.

It is unclear whether the ordinance would result in many arrests in Mecklenburg. Commissioners and park officials said they were unaware of any recent incidents involving sex offenders at a park.

Commissioners' chairman Parks Helms said he wants to hear more from officials about the need for the ordinance before he can support the proposal. “I don't want to put some additional burden on law enforcement where we don't have any experience or any evidence that it's been a problem. (But) there may have been some incidents that I don't know about.”

Mecklenburg commissioners aren't the only Charlotte-area officials considering a park ban. The Hickory City Council will hold a public hearing Aug. 19 on a similar ordinance.

Morganton approved a ban in January.

The ordinances have been fought by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which said the bans offer a “false sense of security” to families. The ACLU has suggested that counties considering ordinances allow offenders to request an exemption to the ban.