When he was 15 and in foster care, G.H. was accused of wrongly touching a 13-year-old girl. He denied it but was judged a juvenile delinquent and given two years' probation.

Now a college student in Ocean County, he is still dealing with the consequences of Megan's Law and a plethora of other rules that restrict sex offenders after they have served their time.

But a precedent-setting ruling Tuesday by a New Jersey appeals court should make it easier for the Richard Stockton State College student, and others in his situation, to find a place to live.

Identified only as G.H. in court documents, he was classified as a sex offender, under Megan's Law, for fourth-degree sexual contact. For 15 years, he must, among other things, notify police whenever he moves into a community.

Two years ago, when he was a freshman, police gave him 60 days to vacate his dormitory because Galloway Township had just adopted an ordinance barring sex offenders from living near schools, day cares and churches - regardless of the severity of their offenses. The college was deemed a school. He had not committed any other crimes.

G.H. sued, with the help of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and that led to the ruling last week. A three-member appeals panel struck down the Galloway ordinance and a similar one in Cherry Hill, saying they were trumped by state law. The ruling also invalidates ordinances passed by 115 other New Jersey municipalities that had restricted residency for sex offenders.

Galloway Township, whose case was argued by Demetrios K. Stratis, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, based in Washington, plans an appeal to the state Supreme Court, saying the protection of children from sex offenders is paramount. Cherry Hill officials are weighing an appeal. The high court, however, has discretion over whether to grant review.

The ordinances, adopted over the last five years throughout the state, run the gamut: Some ban sex offenders from living within a half-mile of convenience stores, bowling alleys, beaches, or anywhere children might congregate. Edgewater Park in Burlington County created a buffer zone around cemeteries, according to Legal Services of New Jersey.

Attorneys say a few other states have adopted residency restrictions to varying degrees. Iowa's statute was upheld, but Georgia's was not.

Besides the ACLU lawyers, attorneys with the state Office of the Public Defender, the state Department of the Public Advocate, and Legal Services of New Jersey, which represents indigent clients, supported arguments against the ordinances. They said these ordinances threatened their clients with homelessness, joblessness, and increased risk of repeat offenses.

On the other side of the emotionally charged issue were the N.J. Crime Victims Law Center and municipal officials, who say the state isn't doing enough to protect residents from sex offenders.

In a 42-page opinion, the appeals court found that the ordinances bordered on "vigilantism and harassment" and went far beyond a carefully crafted state law. Megan's Law, the court said, strikes a balance between protecting children from sexual predators and safeguarding the rights of former convicts who are released into society.

The Legislature adopted Megan's Law in 1994 after 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and killed by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived on her street in Hamilton Township. Other states soon followed suit, adopting their own versions after the public outcry.

Over the years, these laws have evolved, leading to an Internet registry of the more serious sex offenders, GPS monitoring, and stringent parole conditions that require lifetime supervision and permission to cross state lines or visit places where children might be. Parole officers also were given the responsibility of approving residences.

About five years ago, municipalities began adding layers of restrictions, creating a mosaic of buffer zones that outlined where sex offenders were not permitted to live.

In Franklin Township, Gloucester County, there are 16 categories, including convenience stores and recreation fields, with buffer zones as wide as a half-mile for some sex offenders.

"I've had clients ask me whether they should stop reporting and go underground, or whether they should split up their family and move out of their house where they've lived for years," said Ingrid D. Johnson, a lawyer with Legal Services of New Jersey.

"Some couldn't afford to move and became resigned to the fact that they would just go back to prison because they had no other way to exist," Johnson said. Many of the ordinances carried fines and prison terms if the person wouldn't move.

But Stratis, who at no charge argued Galloway's case on behalf of the nonprofit organization, said the towns just wanted to help parole officers find appropriate places for sex offenders to live.

"Parole officers have many many cases and can't expect to know where children congregate in a township. The town knows, and that's why we are a home-rule state. We set up laws to protect our citizens," he said.

Municipalities adopted their ordinances when they saw the legislators fail to act on a state law that would set up uniform restrictions, Stratis said.

"We believe that if you are a sex offender, you have a high risk of recidivism," Stratis said. "A township should have a right to set up these barriers. . . . The idea is to remove temptation."

But Frank L. Corrado, the attorney whom the ACLU provided to the college student, said parole officers are best equipped to determine the best environment for a sex offender. That normally is "where he's living with family, or one where he can walk to work," he said. Unfortunately, Corrado said, such locations sometimes fall inside a buffer zone.

Two years ago, this happened when a 76-year-old Franklin man who had served time for molesting his two grandchildren wanted to return to his home of four decades and his wife. Police tried to evict him, saying an ordinance barred him from living within 2,500 feet of a beach.

The Public Defender's Office sued, arguing that he was not a threat to strangers and that his family members were already aware of his past and would protect their children. A year ago, the township settled the case, and he was allowed to stay.

Michael Z. Buncher, a deputy public defender, said studies show the ordinances don't work because they create stress that can interfere with a sex offender's rehabilitation. Studies also show that most offenders, if they are going to re-offend, will go at least five miles away so as not to be recognized.

Buncher said the ordinances fail to recognize differences among the sex offenders and their varying risk levels. "They are not a monolithic group of people," he said.

The appeals panel agreed, finding the municipalities had overstepped their bounds and created ordinances that had the effect of denying housing to sex offenders.

"The Legislature did not include residency restrictions in its chosen remedy, but did include a complex system of particularized case-by-case assessment of risk . . . combined with close supervision," the court said.

The court noted that most of Galloway fell into buffer zones and that Cherry Hill had "virtually banished" all sex offenders from within its borders. Only "a desolate field" and a posh neighborhood were outside the township's many buffer zones, the court said.

Not in South Jersey

These are South Jersey municipalities where a court ruling invalidated ordinances that limited where sex offenders could live:

Burlington County

Cinnaminson, Edgewater Park, Florence, Hainesport, Lumberton, Medford, Moorestown, Palmyra, Riverside, Shamong

Camden County

Cherry Hill, Gloucester City, Gloucester Township, Mount Ephraim, Voorhees, Winslow

Gloucester County

Franklin Township, Monroe, Washington Township, Woolwich

SOURCE: Legal Services of New Jersey


To read the appellate court's ruling, go to go.philly.com/meganslaw


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler
at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.