GRAND RAPIDS (WWJ/AP) – A federal judge has ruled that homeless sex offenders may stay overnight at shelters near schools in Grand Rapids despite a state law prohibiting them from living within 1,000 feet of a school.
U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist issued the ruling Tuesday, after determining that homeless people do not “reside” in emergency shelters if they only go there at night to sleep and have no guarantee of a place to stay on a given night.
Both of Grand Rapids’ shelters are within that student-safety zone.
Quist narrowed his ruling to this case, and rejected a request for an injunction to prevent enforcement of provisions of the Sex Offender Registration Act and student safety zones. The lawsuit was brought by several homeless people with criminal-sexual conduct convictions, Mel Trotter Ministries and Degage Ministries.
The case was brought after 51-year-old Thomas Pauli froze to death in January 2009 after an overnight shelter denied him admission because he was on the state’s Sex Offender Registry. He had a 1991 sexual assault conviction involving a pre-teen girl.
“After the death of Thomas Pauli, the shelter-advocacy community really came together to say no one should freeze to death,” said Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “To freeze to death on the street, that’s a horrible fate. No one deserves that.”
An email seeking comment was sent Thursday by The Associated Press to representatives of the office of Michigan’s attorney general.
The state argued that homeless shelters had no obligation under the law to determine whether a visitor is a sex offender, and said a challenge should come after someone is prosecuted. The state said those who sued failed to identify any injury the court could act upon.
“As Michigan law now stands … plaintiffs have no well-founded fear of prosecution,” Assistant Attorney General John Fedynsky wrote in court documents.
The ACLU said homeless sex-offender registrants were threatened with arrest if they used homeless shelters as residences, and both the homeless and shelters needed clarification of the law. The homeless people who filed suit were identified only by pseudonyms.
“I think this ruling is actually a big win for public safety because what the research shows is that people who don’t have stable housing, people who don’t have a place to stay are more likely to commit crimes. All of us are safer knowing that registrants’ basic human needs are met,” said Aukerman.
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