Sex Offender Residency Restriction Clarified

A registered sex offender may not knowingly reside within 1,000 feet of a school or child care center. G.S. 14-208.16. That restriction was enacted in 2006, S.L. 2006-247, and applies to all registered sex offenders in North Carolina, regardless of their particular crime or date of offense. A violation of the law is a Class G felony.

The residency restriction law has two exceptions that exclude certain sex offenders from its coverage. Both exceptions, which operate as grandfather clauses that protect certain registrants’ property interests, were likely included in the in an effort to avoid some of the litigation that had arisen regarding other states’ residency restrictions around that time. See, e.g., Mann v. Georgia Dept. of Corr., 653 S.E.2d 740 (Ga. 2007) (holding that Georgia’s similar restriction violated the Takings Clause by forcing a sex offender to move out of his home, without compensation, when a child care center opened nearby).

The first exception is for changes in the ownership or use of property within 1,000 feet of a registrant’s address that occur after the registrant establishes residency. G.S. 14-208.16(d). In other words, if the sex offender was there first, he or she does not have to move away if a school or child care center opens up nearby. The statute provides three ways in which a residence can be “established” for purposes of applying the exception:

  • Purchasing or entering into a specifically enforceable contract to purchase the residence;
  • Entering into a written lease for the residence; and
  • Residing with an immediate family member “who established residence in accordance with this subsection [G.S. 14-208.16(d)].” Immediate family member is defined as a child or sibling who is at least 18 years old, or a parent, grandparent, legal guardian, or spouse of the registrant.

The second exception, broader than the first, is that the restriction does not apply at all to any registrant who established a residence before the law came into effect in 2006. Unlike the first exception, the second exception was not initially written into G.S. 14-208.16 itself. It was, rather, included in the effective date clause of the legislation that enacted that statute. S.L. 2006-247, § 11.(c) (“Subsection (a) of this section does not apply to a person who has established a residence prior to the effective date of this subsection.”). The same methods of establishing residence applicable to the first exception (purchase, lease, or residing with an immediate family member) also apply to the second exception.

Not everyone interpreted the second exception the same way. First, because it was in the session law but not the codified statute, some people apparently were not aware of it at all. Second, there was some confusion about the triggering date of the exception, with some people reading the law to exclude registrants who established a residence before December 1, 2006 (the date mentioned in §11.(c) of S.L. 2006-247), and others thinking the residence had to have been established by August 16, 2006 (the day the governor signed the bill into law). Third (and perhaps most significantly), there were differences of opinion about the proper interpretation of the “reside with an immediate family member” method of establishing residence. Some thought the exception applied only if the registrant actually moved in with the immediate family member before the law’s effective date, regardless of when the family member purchased or leased the residence. Others read that exception to relate back to the date the immediate family member established the residence, even if the registrant himself or herself didn’t live there until later. The latter reading had some support in the statute (the law refers to immediate family members who establish residence “in accordance with this subsection,” arguably bringing them within the law’s overall effective date fold), but people disagreed.

Legislation enacted this year, effective when it became law on April 16, 2013, attempted to address all three of those concerns. S.L. 2013-28. First, the legislation wrote the second exception into G.S. 14-208.16(a) itself, bringing it out of the shadows of the session laws. Second, the now-codified second exception makes clear that it applies as of August 16, 2006—not December 1 of that year.

Finally, the legislation attempted to clarify that the exception is measured by the date the registrant establishes residency, and does not relate back to the date the residence was established by an immediate family member. A pointed clause in the legislation’s preamble defined the problem the revised law was intended to address:

“Whereas, law enforcement officials mistakenly believe, based only upon the codified portion of the [2006] law . . . that a registered sex offender can legally reside within 1,000 feet of a school or day care center if the offender moves in with a family member who had established residence at the location prior to the effective date of the law, even though the offender did not establish residence at the location prior to August 16, 2006 . . . .”

That framing of the issue should make clear (to people who read session laws, at least) that revised G.S. 14-208.16(a) is intended to exclude only those registrants who themselves established a residence before August 16, 2006, and that the exclusion does not relate back to the date an immediate family member established residence. Any registrant who was residing with an immediate family member under a former interpretation of the law probably should have moved out after April 16, 2013.