Iowa Considers Further Rules on Sex Offender

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In Iowa, officials in Polk County vote Tuesday on whether to further restrict where sex offenders may live. A state law already prohibits sex offenders whose victims were minors from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center. Last month, Des Moines added restrictions making almost the entire city off-limits to sex offenders.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Officials in Iowa are passing one law after another to restrict where convicted sex offenders may life. Under state law, sex offenders whose victims were minors cannot live within 2,000 feet of a school or day-care facility. The state capital, Des Moines, recently passed a law that put almost the entire city off limits. And tonight, officials in the surrounding county consider new restrictions of their own. NPR's David Schaper is tracking the effort to make convicted sex offenders move along.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

Des Moines police began notifying convicted sex offenders back in September of the change in the law.

Sergeant BARRY ARNOLD (Sex Abuse Unit, Des Moines Police Department): What the city ordinance did was restrict almost, you know, 99.9 percent of any living area, because it included parks, libraries, swimming pools and recreational trails.

SCHAPER: Sergeant Barry Arnold supervises the department's Sex Abuse Unit and is now arresting people who refuse to move or just haven't been able to find anyplace to go.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Detective LAURIE ARNOLD(ph): Housekeeping.

SCHAPER: Detective Laurie Arnold knocks on the door of a seedy motel room.

Det. ARNOLD: Hi, Peter?

Mr. PETER PAYNE: Yeah.

Det. ARNOLD: Why don't you grab your shoes. We have a warrant for your arrest.

SCHAPER: Sitting in shorts and a T-shirt outside the motel room, handcuffed and shivering in the cool morning air, 34-year-old Peter Payne complains about being hunted down for a crime he says he's already paid for.

Mr. PAYNE: Double jeopardy is exactly what this is. They're charging us for the same thing again. And I did my time, and now that I'm out as a free man, now they want to harass me and antagonize me.

(Soundbite of child laughing)

SCHAPER: Some who cannot find anyplace to legally live have just turned themselves in to be locked up. Authorities fear other sex offenders will live in their cars, become homeless or go underground, making them more difficult to monitor. Ryan Weatherly just left the state, leaving his wife and two children behind. While 10-year-old Alex and five-year-old Conner watch TV and play in a living room stacked with boxes, his wife Wendy prepares to move from her home state.

Ms. WENDY WEATHERLY: You know, every day I hear about another town that's made a law, and so we just said, `Well, I guess he'll have to go--he decided he'd go stay with his sister in Oklahoma.'

SCHAPER: Ryan Weatherly was convicted 10 years ago when he was 18 of a crime he committed when he was 13. He served a suspended sentence and hasn't had so much as a traffic ticket since. Wendy Weatherly calls the 2,000-foot law ridiculous. And in her case, she says it's punishing the wrong person, not her husband but their children.

Ms. WEATHERLY: It's hard, you know, and I have to--my five-year-old doesn't understand. He has no clue. `Why isn't Daddy back? Where's Dad?' You know, what do you tell him? My 10-year-old, she knows what's going on. She didn't for a long time. How's a 10-year-old supposed to cope with that?

SCHAPER: The law doesn't differentiate between relatively minor and serious sex offenses. Nonetheless, the Polk County Board of Supervisors appears likely to pass its own version of the stringent 2,000-foot law tonight. By some estimates, it will make it illegal for convicted sex offenders to live in close to 95 percent of the county's residential areas. Board Chairman Tom Hockensmith says when the biggest city in the county and four suburbs made themselves off limits to child molesters, he started getting a lot of anxious phone calls.

Mr. TOM HOCKENSMITH (Chairman, Polk County Board of Supervisors): The people that live in the villages or unincorporated areas in Polk County, where we're the only government, are saying, `Hey, wait a minute. You know, well, what's going to happen? Well, these folks are all going to come out and live in unincorporated Polk County, and what about protection for us?'

SCHAPER: Hockensmith admits Polk County's action will likely prompt neighboring counties to do the same, creating a domino effect of stricter residency laws against sex offenders across the state. At the same time, he and others, including law enforcement officials, acknowledge residency restrictions do little to prevent sexual abuse of children, which occurs mostly in the home. Ultimately, Hockensmith and other officials hope their actions will prompt the state Legislature to revise Iowa's 2,000-foot law. David Schaper, NPR News.

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