Sex offenders have rights — ‘No Trick-or-Treat’ signs trample them, Georgia judge rules

Three registered sex offenders in Georgia clutched a victory on the brink of Halloween when a federal judge ordered lawn signs deterring trick-or-treaters be removed from their homes.

Butts County Sheriff Gary Long argued last week the signs should remain while the lawsuit — brought by the three named plaintiffs seeking to represent a class of sex offenders who allege their civil rights were violated — moves forward.

But Judge Marc Thomas Treadwell disagreed Tuesday.

“The defendants should be aware that the authority for their blanket sign-posting is dubious at best and even more dubious if posted over the objection of registrants,” he said in an order.

The signs read, “Warning! No Trick or Treat at this address!!”

Treadwell’s order mandates the removal of signs from only the three named plaintiffs’ residences, finding others can stay up until the remaining class members’ objections are established.

“Although, as a practical matter, it might be assumed that anyone would object to such a message from law enforcement in front of their homes, the court is not comfortable making that assumption as a foundation for injunctive relief,” the order states.

It’s too late to appeal the decision given the close proximity to Halloween, the sheriff said in a Facebook post shortly after the order was released.

But Long said there will be increased law enforcement presence in neighborhoods where “sex offenders are likely to be.” He also urged community members not to “take matters into your own hands this Halloween.”

According to the sheriff, the debate stems from a practice established in 2018 when a “large increase” in door-to-door trick-or-treaters prompted deputies to place signs at the residence of every registered sex offender in Butts County.

“The goal of these laws is to make our community safer, by not allowing convicted criminal predators to hide in the shadows,” Long said in the Facebook post Tuesday.

But when sex offenders objected to the lawn signs, deputies reportedly threatened to arrest them.

There are 56 registered offenders in the county, public data shows. That includes sexual offenders, sexually dangerous predators and absconders.

The three named plaintiffs in the litigation have convictions that date between 2001 and 2007 in various states and include criminal sexual assault of a minor, sexual battery and statutory rape.

In his order, the judge said they have “paid their debts to society” in the eyes of the law.

“By all accounts, they are rehabilitated,” Treadwell said. “They live productive, law abiding lives. Two of the named Plaintiffs live with their parents; one has a six-year-old daughter living with him.”

The sheriff’s office had argued the injunction would impede their ability to “protect the public from sexual predators,” court documents show.

But the assumption that their homes are somehow unsafe or “dangerous for children” is without basis, the order states — something the sheriff confirmed when he reportedly testified that “he cannot recall a time when there has been an issue with sex offenders on Halloween.”

“The question the court must answer is not whether Sheriff Long’s plan is wise or moral, or whether it makes penological sense,” the order states. “Rather, the question is whether Sheriff Long’s plan runs afoul of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It does.”

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.