A Rutland ordinance barring sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and other locations is illegal, a Rutland Superior Court judge has ruled.
Judge Samuel Hoar Jr. sided with three anonymous sex offenders who sued the city after they were forced to move, or pay massive fines, for living within areas protected by the 2008 ordinance.
The judge ruled that the city did not have legal authority to create the ordinance, and called the policy needlessly punitive.
"What the city has done here is effectively to declare an entire class of persons to be a public nuisance, by simple virtue of their physical existence," Hoar wrote in a 13-page decision issued December 8. "Plaintiffs have been convicted and punished; the city cannot now say to them, anymore than they could to any other citizen, 'We don’t want your type in our town.' The boldness and breadth of this assertion is virtually without precedent."
Three sex offenders, all identified as "John Doe" in court documents, had complied with requirements of the sex offender registry and had been under the supervision of probation and parole officers. Their only offense was living within a 1,000-foot zone created by Rutland's "child safety ordinance." Designed to keep sex offenders from living in places where children often congregate, the zone encompassed almost the entirety of downtown Rutland and much of the city.
The men were ordered in 2016 to move out or face fines of up to $500. The Vermont Prisoners' Rights Office sued on their behalf.
Defender General Matt Valerio said ordinances restricting sex offenders needlessly fuel public hysteria and make it more difficult for offenders to peacefully reintegrate into society.
"Sex offenders and any other person getting out of jail are going to live somewhere, and usually the places they have the best likelihood to be successful and not reoffend are where they are close to services, close to jobs, close to resources, and close to family so that they have a safety net and a job," Valerio said.
During the lawsuit, attorneys for Rutland argued that the city had the right to regulate sex offenders because it considered them a "public nuisance" on par with slaughterhouses or public alcohol consumption.
But Hoar rejected that logic.
"The city declares plaintiffs nuisances for no discernible activity but drawing breath," he wrote.
In 2009, a Washington Superior Court judge struck down a similar ordinance in Barre. That decision was not appealed, and the Vermont Supreme Court has never ruled on the power of communities to enact rules restricting sex offenders.
It is unclear if Rutland will appeal the ruling. Mayor Dave Allaire did not respond to a message seeking comment.