The 300-Foot Rule

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The News & Observer ran an article last weekend about some of the restrictions on where sex offenders are allowed to live or go. One of the laws mentioned was G.S. 14-208.18(a)(2), which makes it a Class H felony for certain registered sex offenders to “knowingly be . . . [w]ithin 300 feet of any location intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors when the place is located on premises that not intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors, including, but not limited to, [schools, children’s museums, child care centers, nurseries, and playgrounds] that are located in malls, shopping centers, or other property open to the general public.” It was clear from the article that there’s some confusion about the law, so it seemed a good topic for today’s post.

Passed in 2008 (S.L. 2008-117), the 300-foot rule prohibits covered offenders from going near certain locations within places. It effectively tells the registrant, “You can go to places like the mall, you just can’t go within 300 feet of the playground within the mall.” That sounds easy enough, but there are some complications. First, which locations qualify as locations “primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors” under this law? It seems like a clearly demarcated play area within a larger, non-kid-specific place would be covered. That would appear to render just about any fast-food restaurant with a play area entirely off limits—the play area is primarily for minors and the restaurant as a whole is not. Even the largest of restaurants (except maybe that giant McDonald’s that spans the Will Rogers Turnpike in Oklahoma) would almost certainly be swallowed up by the football field–sized radius drawn around any play area on site.  Would a single coin-operated ride also qualify as a location for the use of children? In a multi-story mall can a covered registrant knowingly be in the areas above or below the play area? What about a shallow “kiddie area” in a public pool? Is that a location with a broader place (the pool as a whole) such that covered offenders cannot come within 300 feet of it? A play apparatus for children located within a broader park used by adults and children alike? A juvenile area within a bookstore or library? These are all actual questions I’ve been asked.

A related question, discussed in the N&O article, is whether the 300-foot radius around the location within a place extends beyond the boundaries of the place itself. In the McDonald’s example, for instance, does the presence of a “Play Place” on site just mean the offender cannot go on the premises of the McDonald’s itself, or does the 300-foot radius also sweep across adjoining parcels, rendering them (or portions of them) off limits too? To illustrate, does the restriction only apply to the greenish area in the figure below, or does it also exclude offenders from the yellow area outside of the mall premises?

The literal language of the statute suggests that the yellow area is included, but that works a somewhat strange result in that locations within places would be surrounded by a 300-foot buffer while places devoted entirely to use by children (from which covered registrants are excluded under G.S. 14-208.18(a)(1)) would not. (There is no 300-foot boundary drawn around, say, a stand-alone children’s museum or school. Rather, the offender just cannot go on the museum or school property itself under G.S. 14-208.18(a)(1) or (a)(3).)

To further complicate things, what if (as depicted in the figure) a covered registrant’s home falls within the portion of the 300-foot radius that lies outside the mall? Does the 300-foot restriction then operate like a residency restriction? North Carolina has explicit residency restrictions under G.S. 14-208.16, which prohibits registrants from residing with 1,000 feet of schools and child care centers, as those places are defined by law. Again, it would be strange if the 300-foot rule operated as a more restrictive residency restriction than the residency restriction itself. It also bears mentioning that the 300-foot rule does not include the grandfather clauses built into G.S. 14-208.16 that exclude offenders who established a residence before residency restrictions came into effect on December 1, 2006 (see S.L. 2006-247, sec. 11) or who lived in a place before a school or daycare opened up nearby. Without those exemptions, an offender forced to move out of his or her property might have a valid claim under the Takings Clause. See, e.g., Mann v. Georgia Department of Correction, 282 Ga. 754 (2007) (holding Georgia’s residency restriction law constituted an impermissible taking as applied to a sex offender who was forced to move after a child care center opened near his home).

The 300-foot rule (and other provisions within G.S. 14-208.18) raise other constitutional issues, particularly to the extent that they might infringe on a covered registrant’s ability to practice his or her religion. As mentioned in the N&O article, that aspect of the law has been litigated at the trial court level (a superior court judge ruled in a Chatham County criminal case that portions of the law are unconstitutionally vague and overbroad), but not in our appellate courts. I’ll save any conjecture about those constitutional issues for a future post and instead conclude this one by focusing on some things we know about G.S. 14-208.18.

First, as I mentioned before, the law came into effect on December 1, 2008, and applies to offenses committed on or after that date. It’s clear, I think, that “offenses” refers to violations of G.S. 14-208.18 itself, not to the underlying sex crime that got the offender on the registry.

Second, the law does not apply to all registered sex offenders. Rather, it applies only to those who committed an offense in Article 7A of Chapter 14 (rape, sexual offense, statutory rape or sexual offense, sexual battery, and intercourse with certain victims—and there is no “substantial similarity” provision that would include analogous out-of-state crimes), or whose offense involved a victim who was under the age of 16 at the time of the offense. G.S. 14-208.18(c). (By contrast, the residency restrictions in G.S. 14-208.16 do apply to all registrants, except those who might fall within one of the grandfather clauses mentioned above.) It’s not clear whether this law, like the satellite-based monitoring (SBM) law, requires that the victim’s age be apparent based on the elements of the crime of conviction alone for the offense to be covered. See State v. Davison, discussed here. Unlike the SBM law there’s no mention of “conviction offense” in G.S. 14-208.18(c), so it’s probably permissible to look at the facts of the case to determine the victim’s age. That’s the position taken in a publication from the Attorney General’s office (available here, page 24).

Third, subsections (d) through (g) of the statute set out exceptions to the law that allow: (1) offenders who are parents or guardians of a minor to obtain emergency medical care for that minor; (2) offenders who are parents or guardians, under certain circumstances, to visit schools for conferences; (3) offenders to vote; (4) school-age offenders to attend public school if permitted by the board of education; and (5) juvenile offenders to obtain medical care.

I realize this post offers more questions than answers. The best I can say for now is that I’ll keep you posted on any clarifications that emerge from the General Assembly or the appellate courts. I welcome your comments on whether and how this law has been applied where you are.

17 comments on “The 300-Foot Rule

  1. I would like to pose another question with the 300 foot and 1000 foot restrictions. Is there a “time frame” for these violations or is it immediately when you come within range? As a former registered sex offender, I was informed by a deputy in the civil division of my local sheriffs department that if I were to be pulled over for a traffic infraction and the stop was within 1000 feet of a school, I could have been violated for driving past the school if the roadway was within 1000 feet of the school. If this is the case, almost every street in most towns will become off limits to registered sex offenders as they will not be able to even drive past a McDonalds, a mall, a library, etc….. I feel the laws should have included an intent clause to allow for a violation only if there is probable cause to suspect criminal intent.

    • James Bertram: It’s not clear how long a covered registrant must remain in a prohibited place to “knowingly be at” that place for the purposes of G.S. 14-208.18. No time frame is set out in the statute.

      As to your other point, it is not a crime for a registrant to “be” within 1,000 feet of a school. The 1,000-foot rule in G.S. 14-208.16 is a residency restriction, not a “being” restriction. The registrant can go there, he or she just cannot live there.

      In fact, because a school is a premises that is, as a whole, primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors (and not a “location within a place” as described in this post), there is no prohibited radius around the school at all. The offender just may not go on the school property itself under G.S. 14-208.18(a)(1) or (a)(3).

      • Under 14-208.16(d), the statute states how a residence is established. The statute does not however speak to overnight stays with nonfamily members or staying infrequently with friends that have a residence within 1000 feet of a child care facility when the registrant does not have a “residence” himself. Is there another statute that covers this gap?

  2. […] News and Record points out the increasingly restrictive laws that prohibit registered sex offenders from coming within 300 feet of schools, churches and even public places like McDonalds that have playgrounds for […]

  3. I am an out-of-state registered sex offender. My offense was in 2006 in Florida and I am currently living in NH. Recently I have been interviewing for a technical position (with no minor supervisory responsibilities) at a church in Charlotte, NC Mecklenburg county.
    (They are aware of my background, by the way)

    While waiting for the interview period to conclude I have been looking into the sex offender restrictions and how they might apply if I were to be offered the position. Specifically, would the 300 foot law automatically prohibit me from not only working for the church but also attending? There are nursery services provided at the church and there is no indication of there being a private school at, or associated with, the church.

    Your article above quickly indicated something to this effect but not in depth. It also mentioned something about offenses committed after the law was put in effect. Does this mean I am exempt? Obviously I have a lot to find out. Could you point me in the right direction so I can be more informed should I be offered this position? I should be hearing back from the church on Monday (3/21) and I’m hoping to have as much information as possible by then.

    Thank you for your time.

    David Demers

    • My Husband is a registered sex offender in the state of North Carolina and we are having the same questions. My husbands offense/conviction was in 1997 with consentual sex with a 16 year old and is no longer on the registry in that state. The consentual age law in North Carolina is 16 but is still required to reg in NC. and was told he could not attend church at all or he would be lock up. We are seeking a lawyer to understand the laws of NC and what we can do to attend church. We were first told if a preacher would allow him to attend church then he could go, then when we found a church/preacher that would except his back ground the office of registry changed there mind and said he couldn’t. We are confused about this law cause it keep changing by word of mouth. When we moved to North Carolina the officer that is in charge of sex registry plainly told us that the laws were made to keep him from moving here and they did not want “his kind here”. When you find out info please contact me. Thanks

      • Elizabeth
        My husband is a registered sec offender for something that happened back when he was 19 which was 14 years ago. We are considering moving to north carolina from Massachusetts and I’m concerned based on your post that this isn’t a good idea. I have family down there but they are unaware of his past. Could you tell me how you made out with all this?? In Massachusetts they send out flyers to the entire neighborhood and he is concerned the will happen and we will be treated poorly by our neighbors.can u lend me some helpful insight??

      • As far as I have been told, my husband is also registered unfortunately, they are allowed to attend church services as long as they leave after service ends. They are not to go near the child care areas or loiter near them.

  4. This law seems to cross other state laws as well as laws of ethics. It actually makes it illegal (with substantially higher penalty) to do things like stopping for a stopped school bus/crosswalk, staying at an accident involving a child/minor, or rendering medical assistance to a child/minor. Which does a registrant choose…a felony and self sacrifice o self protection and let the lives of others go? Personally, I would risk my own life to save another life and just hope the justice system agrees with my decision instead of charging me with a felony just because they can.

  5. Thank you for your diligence in keeping everyone informed.

  6. What do the NC statutes say about sex offenders (those who have committed crimes against children)living close to school bus stops?

    Plus, can a sex offender who has committed a crime against a child or children, live next to a house or houses that have a child or children?

    Also, when a sex offender transitional house is established in a neighborhood is there any NC law that requires the community to be notified? If so, how are they to be notified and by what means (flyers, mail, email etc.)?

  7. […] headlines went he sent a letter to every registrant in the county prohibiting them, under the 300-foot rule, from going to church. The constitutional issues raised by these scenarios are interesting, but my […]

  8. […] the defendant was charged with a violation of G.S. 14-208.18(a)(2)—the 300-foot rule described here—for entering a Presbyterian church that has a preschool. The preschool was deemed a location […]

  9. Any exception for registered sex offender being in a private room in maternity ward at hospital?

  10. I was arrested. In 2010 for indecent liberties with a minor. I was lied to by a girl who was 15 and told me she was 19. I was 24 at the time. I am currently. A registered offender because of this. I took my family to Chuck e chees on the 19 of January. I was arrested. On Feb 26 for the 300 ft rule. My charges got dismissed In april for being unconstitutionally vauge. So my question. Is how come a man gets in trouble for being lied to and the other party gets nothing? But to arrest me for being a parent is bull. They put me all over the news for this. But when my charges got dismissed nobody heard anything. About it. North Carolina is not where. You want to move. Especially. Onslow county. They do what they want and don’t follow the laws themselves. Welcome to north Carolina, come on vacation leave on probation. There nothing but moneyhungry pigs in this state.

  11. I am on the registry for a picture of a minor girl that met the federal standard. The conviction was Oct. 2005. My offense was hands off. I am a personal trainer and mountain biker. “The law says certain offenders…”
    There are mountain bike trails in certain county parks that pose a suitable challenge. Yet the law is vague regarding the matter.

  12. […] to subdivision (a)(2), the so-called 300-foot rule, the judge ruled last year that the law was not unconstitutionally vague. However, at that […]

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