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Moorhead eyes law limiting sex offender residency

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MOORHEAD, MN – With residents angered by two high-risk sex offenders recently moving to south Moorhead, the City Council is expected to consider a new city law that could profoundly limit where offenders can live. 

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A draft of the proposed ordinance would prohibit certain sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, day care center, park or playground. There would also be a 1,000-foot buffer around public school bus stops, places of worship that hold classes, such as Sunday school, or any other spot where children regularly gather, according to a copy of the draft obtained by The Forum.

“I don’t think we need to roll the red carpet out for someone who’s been such a negative blight on society,” said Dan Haglund, a resident who’s pushing for the new city law.

“I don’t think we owe it to them to make it easy for them to find somewhere to live.”

In a city with at least 450 public school bus stops, about 60 parks and seven public schools, such a law would deeply complicate an offender’s search for housing.

Because of this, Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger is firmly opposed to the proposal, which would apply to offenders whose victims were younger than 16, as well as Level III offenders, considered the most likely to commit another sex crime.

“Exclusionary rules do a fantastic job of turning Level III sex offenders into homeless Level III sex offenders,” Ebinger said, adding that transient offenders are more likely to reoffend.

“When we know where (offenders) are, and they’re given an opportunity to have housing and get a job, it increases their level of success,” he said. “And it increases our ability to control what they’re doing and to monitor them.”

Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said City Attorney John Shockley created the rough draft of the law at the request of Councilwoman Brenda Elmer. Elmer said she made the request near the end of May after residents inquired about the city’s options regarding sex-offender policies.

“We are just gathering information on what the current laws are throughout the state of Minnesota,” Elmer said. “At this point, it’s just kind of a fact-finding mission.”

Elmer said she has not decided whether she supports the law that’s been drafted. Nor has she discussed the law with other council members, but she anticipates the matter will come up when the council meets at 5:30 p.m. June 23 at City Hall.

‘In a tent’

Moorhead’s draft is based on an existing law in the city of Wyoming, one of several Minnesota municipalities that have created similar ordinances. Wyoming, a town of about 7,800 people 30 miles north of the Twin Cities, adopted its law in 2005, essentially banning high-risk offenders from living there.

“We basically don’t allow them to exist in the city,” said City Administrator Craig Mattson.

The law has left just a small plot of undeveloped land in Wyoming where an offender could potentially live. “There’s no buildings there. Basically, you’d have to live in a tent,” Mattson said. “I imagine that was by design.”

Mattson said Wyoming has not had trouble enforcing its law. However, Ebinger worries that putting such constraints on where offenders can live would create legal problems for Moorhead.

“You leave yourself wide open to some litigation because you effectively exclude them from an opportunity of any affordable or realistic housing,” he said. “Then you’ve got an issue of constitutional fairness.”

Along with limiting where offenders can live, the law would forbid them from taking part in holiday festivities involving minors. Specifically, they would not be permitted to give candy to children on Halloween, dress up as Santa Claus at Christmastime or wear bunny costumes during the Easter season.

It would also be illegal for landlords to rent a home to an offender covered by the ordinance. A grandfather clause would allow registered offenders already living in a prohibited area to remain there.

In 2010, an ordinance was proposed in Fargo that would have kept offenders from living within 1,200 feet of schools and parks, but it was not approved. At the time, Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes objected to the plan because it could lead fewer offenders to register with police as required by law.

North Dakota lawmakers also considered but did not pass similar statewide laws in 2007 and 2009.

‘Red flag’

Lt. Brad Penas, who’s in charge of sex-offender registration in Moorhead, said about 120 offenders, including seven Level III offenders and 15 Level II offenders, reside in the city.

“That number changes on a regular basis,” he said. “These people move in and out of the community quite often.”

On June 5, a high-risk offender with a history of sexual contact with girls he knew took up residence in the 1900 block of First Avenue South.

Last month, another Level III offender moved to the 1000 block of 10th Street South, two blocks from Haglund’s home. Haglund, the father of a 16-year-old girl, was not pleased.

“He’s a repeat offender, and he offended against strangers, so that right there was a red flag for me,” said Haglund, 44.

His displeasure spurred him to attend a May 20 public meeting about the offender, who’s still living in Haglund’s neighborhood between Concordia College and Minnesota State University Moorhead.

“If (offenders) want to settle within a few blocks of hundreds and hundreds of young women, I think that’s just wrong,” Haglund said.

It’s unclear whether the drafted law would apply to colleges, which often have day care centers and programs for children.

Ebinger said he understands the concerns of Haglund and others, but the chief views a residency restriction on offenders as a “feel-good ordinance” that would only make his department’s job more difficult.

“It contributes nothing to public safety,” he said.

Details of proposed sex-offender residency law

The Moorhead City Council may soon discuss a draft of a new city ordinance to restrict where some sex offenders can live. Under the law:

  • Offenders would be prohibited from living within 2,000 feet of a school, day care center, park or playground.
  • Offenders would not be allowed to live within 1,000 feet of a public school bus stop, place of worship that holds classes, such as Sunday school, or any other spots where kids regularly gather.
  • Offenders would be forbidden from taking part in holiday festivities involving minors, including giving out Halloween candy or dressing up as Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.
  • It would be illegal for landlords to rent a home to an offender.
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