A federal judge has ruled that parts of Missouri's new law restricting registered sex offenders' actions on Halloween night are unenforceable, saying the law lacked clarity and could cause confusion for sex offenders and those charged with enforcing it.
The law, signed by Gov. Matt Blunt in June, requires that sex offenders avoid all Halloween-related contact with children from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 31. It requires them to remain inside their homes with the outside lights off and to post a sign saying they have no candy.
A violation is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.
After hearing arguments in a case brought by four sex offenders, U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson on Monday granted a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of some parts of the law.
Scott Holste, a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, said the office would appeal the order, but he declined further comment.
Attorney Chris Quinn, arguing for the state, said the law is aimed at protecting children on a night when many visit strangers' homes, sometimes without their parents.
"Sex offenders pose a risk of reoffending that's higher than anyone else," he said during the hearing.
Jackson found no fault with the provision requiring sex offenders to keep their porch lights off. She agreed there was no lack of clarity in the requirement for a sign that reads, "No candy or treats at this residence."
But other aspects of the statute were too broad and raise questions, the judge said.
Vagueness could cause confusion
For example, Jackson said, may a sex offender have contact with his or her own children on Halloween? Passing out candy is clearly prohibited, but what else constitutes Halloween-related contact? And if a sex offender planned to be out of town on Halloween, he or she would not technically be "inside the home" as the law requires, Jackson pointed out.
The law allows sex offenders to leave home on Halloween night if there is "just cause" such as work or an emergency, but Jackson criticized the measure for failing to define the term more clearly.
Such vagueness would cause confusion among sex offenders, police and prosecutors, she said.
The judge cited a letter sent by the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department to registered sex offenders in the southeast Missouri county. She said the letter's reference to the "Halloween season" could have police trying to enforce the law on days other than Oct. 31.
The injunction stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Attorney Dave Nelson called the law's requirements a "scarlet letter" for sex offenders. He said the statute also results in additional punishment by requiring what amounts to "house arrest" one day each year.
The scope of Jackson's ruling was not immediately clear.
Anthony Rothert, the legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said the order was not limited to the four plaintiffs. But to his understanding, the ruling means that sex offenders in Pike, Cape Girardeau and St. Louis counties — where the plaintiffs live — can spend time with their children on Halloween night and do not have to stay inside their homes.
Rothert said the order applies only to this Halloween but that the ACLU will continue working to get the entire statute off the books.
It is part of a nationwide law enforcement trend targeting sex-offense suspects or registered sex offenders on Halloween and more severely restricting their activities that night.