A new law was enacted in July that helps protect North Carolina’s children from becoming targets of sexual predators. House Bill 1021 bans registered sex offenders from being present in places where children gather, such as libraries, arcades, amusement parks, recreation areas and swimming pools, and in some cases, the state’s fairgrounds.
HB1021 is a re-write of a 2008 law that was successfully challenged in federal court by five sex offenders. The Jessica Lunsford Act (House Bill 993) was named in honor of a nine-year-old Gaston County girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2005 by convicted sex offender John Couey, after Jessica’s family moved to Homosassa, Florida, in 2004. Jessica’s father, Mark Lunsford, lobbied legislatures around the country, including North Carolina, for tougher child predator laws.
Key provisions of the 2008 law prevented sex offenders from visiting places where children frequently congregate. But in John Does 1-5 v. Cooper, the court found the provisions to be too vague, resulting in two court decisions by a trial judge that effectively struck down two of the three provisions being challenged on constitutional grounds. The plaintiffs in the case argued that the law “…prevents those subject to its restrictions from going to church, raising their families, and meaningfully participating in political life.” The case remains under appeal.
U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty noted that nothing in his ruling “prevents the General Assembly from amending the statute or enacting entirely new restrictions that comply with constitutional requirements.”
The rewrite of the Act is an attempt to address the court’s concern about vagueness by listing specific examples of places that convicted sex offenders must avoid. The bill prohibits some sex offenders from being on both the State Fairgrounds and the Mountain State fairgrounds when those events are being held. These rules apply only to offenders whose victims were under the age of 18 and who have been found by a court to present a danger to minors under the age of 18.
Lawmakers hope that the rewritten bill, the “Jessica Lunsford Act Restoration Act,” will serve as a remedy and provide needed protection for children from those who might prey upon them. “There’s nothing more important than keeping our children safe and out of the reach of dangerous sexual offenders,” said Senator Buck Newton of the new law.
Surrounded by law enforcement officials, Senator Newton took to a press conference to explain why the legislation was needed and to outline what he believes was a weak defense by 16-year incumbent Attorney General Roy Cooper. He felt that Cooper did a poor job of defending the original Jessica Lunsford Act, and this led to the law being overruled.
“In August 2013, five registered sex offenders filed a complaint against the state arguing that the Jessica Lunsford Act of 2008 violated their constitutional rights”, said Senator Newton. “In December 2015, U.S. federal district court Judge James Beaty sided against our Attorney General’s weak defense of this law and ordered North Carolina law enforcement not to enforce the provision of the Jessica Lunsford Act that banned sex offenders from being ‘any place where minor gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational, or social programs.’
“Then, this April , Judge Beaty again sided against Cooper’s defense of another provision of the same law and this time he even chided, or depending on how you want to characterize it, cited the Attorney General’s failure to present better evidence in the explanation in defense of the case.
“After this recent ruling from Judge Beaty, it became clear to me, and some of us here at the legislature, that we [felt we] were going to have to step up and do something about this, and that Attorney General Cooper, and his office, was not doing a good job of defending the case and [that] we had to do something to keep our children safe from these dangerous sex offenders. So that why I drafted this legislation.”
Although House Bill 1021 received overwhelming bipartisan support in the General Assembly, roughly half of the Democrat caucus in the house opposed the legislation.
“We are here today because Jessica’s life has continued to inspire action around the country and in our state,” said Governor McCrory at the bill signing ceremony, which was attended by Jessica’s family. “I am proud to take action to protect North Carolina families with this legislation.”
Since House Bill 1021 went into effect the first of this month, two convicted sex offenders have already been charged under the new law. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies arrested two men at the Mountain State Fair over the weekend of September 10-11. Jamie Burleson, 41, of Hendersonville, was charged with the felony that Sunday and Stephen Harner, 32, of Candler, was charged this past Friday, according to warrant documents.