Raleigh, N.C. — State senators are moving forward on a fix for a state law that bans some sex offenders from locations frequented by children.
The original 2008 law, titled the "Jessica Lunsford Act," included an array of measures increasing penalties for and post-release tracking of sex offenders who had targeted children. It was named after a 9-year-old Gaston County girl who was murdered by a convicted offender after her family moved to Florida.
In 2015, a federal judge blocked two sections of the law from being enforced on constitutional grounds. The section forbidding certain sex offenders from being "at any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational, or social programs" was found to be unconstitutionally vague, and the section banning sex offenders from being "within 300 feet of any location intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors" in places such as public playgrounds, children's museums or malls was found to be overly broad, violating the First Amendment.
House Bill 1021, a gut-and-amend of an Innocence Commission bill on Tuesday's Senate Judiciary I Committee agenda, would offer more specificity to the places from which sex offenders are banned, offering examples such as libraries and swimming pools, and would limit the ban to apply only "when minors are present." It would also restrict the 300-foot rule to sex offenders who had victimized children or those found by a court to pose a potential threat to minors.
The measure would also ban those sex offenders from the State Fairgrounds during the annual State Fair.
If enacted, the measure would take effect Oct. 1. It would be mostly repealed if a higher court should uphold the original law in the future.
Sponsor Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said he directed staff to consult with the Attorney General's Office to construct the fix as carefully as possible.
"We've worked hard to try to make this as effective as possible and yet hopefully being in compliance with the judge's orders," Newton said.
"It's very important that we as a body work hard to protect our children," he said, adding, "It's equally important that we try to protect everybody's constitutional rights."
Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, recommended adding local fairs to the bill as well, noting that local events typically have less security than the State Fair. Newton said he would consider adding them as long as it could be done without putting the new law at risk for another legal challenge.
The bill is expected on the Senate floor Wednesday. It would then have to go back to the House for a concurrence vote.