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Ruling could undo restrictions on sex offenders

8:07 PM, Aug 22, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER-A registered sex offender fought the law and won after being told he couldn't live anywhere in the city of Englewood.

The ruling has potential to undermine laws in five other Colorado cities that place distance restrictions on how close some sex offenders can live to school, parks, and other locations.

A federal court judge struck down one such ordinance in Englewood after the American Civil Liberties Union took on the case of the sex offender who moved there.

"Most sex offenders in prison will someday return to the community," ACLU Colorado attorney Mark Silverstein said.

Those offenders need places to live, and Englewood's ordinance 34 made that all but impossible.

99 PERCENT OF THE CITY OFF-LIMITS

The offender in this case is 40-year-old Stephen Ryals.

Ryals was a soccer coach in 2001, when he engaged in what the federal court described as a "consensual sexual relationship" with a high school student who played on the team.

That year, Ryals pleaded guilty felony criminal attempt to commit sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust and sentenced to seven years of probation.

He continued to see the victim, which earned him two years of prison time for violating his probation.

He got out of prison in 2003 and finished parole in October 2004, which starts a ten-year window during which Ryals must register as a sex offender.

In 2012, Ryals bought a home in Englewood and moved there from Denver with his common-law wife.

When he attempted to register as a sex offender with the city, a police detective informed him that he flatly that he "could not live in Englewood," according to court documents.

It turns out that "approximately 99 percent of the city is off limits to most sex offenders," wrote US District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson.

That's due to the 2006 Englewood ordinance requiring felony or violent offenders to live 2,000 yards away from schools and parks and 1,000 yards away from recreation centers and daycare facilities.

A map prepared by Ryal's legal team shows only four small pockets of the city in which he could legally live.

IMPACT OF RESTRICTIONS

The judge worried about what would happen if policies like the one in Englewood were to spread.

"Every city and county in Colorado could enact a similar 'not in my backyard' ordinance and effectively ban sex offenders like Mr. Ryals from the entire state," wrote Judge Jackson. "Contrary to the [state] legislature's intent to rehabilitate and reintegrate sex
offenders."

From a practical standpoint, the ACLU also argued that such ordinances lead some offenders to simply decide not to register with the state as required by law.

"They will drop out, go underground, and be disconnected, not only from supervision but also from effective continued treatment," Silverstein said.

"I'd want to know if I had a person like that on my street," said Paula Feasel, who lives near Ryals neighborhood.

Like most people, Feasel is uneasy about the idea of a sex offender living nearby.

But when she saw the map depicting the city's restrictions, she felt the law went too far.

"They gotta live somewhere," Feasel said.

ORDINANCE BORN IN A 'NIMBY' ARMS RACE

The Englewood ordinance has its origins in a sort of "not in my back yard" arms race envisioned by the judge.

In July of 2006, state officials notified the City of Englewood that it intended to place a paroled "sexually violent" offender at an extended-stay hotel within a block of a daycare center.

The state turned to Englewood after a failed attempt to place him in nearby Greenwood Village, which had quickly passed an ordinance restricting where such offenders could live, blocking the placement.

Englewood moved to do the same and passed ordinance 34 by late fall.

ENGLEWOOD'S REACTION COULD HAVE BROAD IMPLICATIONS

She'd encourage the city to re-write its ordinance to be less restrictive, opening up more of the city to offenders.

That's an option the judge appeared to leave open in his ruling and one that the city council may consider when it decides how to react to the court ruling on Monday.

The council could also decide to appeal or simply drop ordinance 34 altogether.

Because of the pending discussion, Englewood officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

"The City's legal counsel is in process of reviewing Judge Jackson's ruling and will report their findings to City Council at the Council Study Session on Monday night," Deputy City Manager Michael Flaherty said. "Council will determine whether or not further actions are appropriate."

The case could affect similar ordinances in Greenwood Village, Castle Rock, Lone Tree, Commerce City and Greeley.

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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