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U.S. Judge Bars Sheriff From Posting 'No Trick-or-Treat' Signs in Front of Sex Offenders' Homes

  • 30 Oct 2019 11:00 PM
    Message # 8084798
    John (Administrator)


    A federal judge in Georgia has called a halt to a county sheriff’s plans to place warning signs for trick-or-treaters in front of the homes of people on Georgia’s sex offender registry. 

    U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell of the Middle District of Georgia limited the injunction he handed down Tuesday to the three men on the state sex offender registry who sued to stop Butts County Sheriff Gary Long from posting the warning signs. But the judge’s order also put the sheriff on notice that the authority he asserted for “blanket sign posting” in front of other registered sex offenders’ homes “is dubious at best and even more dubious if posted over the objection of registrants.”

    The sheriff’s signs, which he wants to place on the public rights-of-way in front of the homes of county residents on the state sex offender registry, warn “No trick-or-treat at this address,” adding that the warning is “a community safety message from Butts County Sheriff Gary Long.”

    Deputies warned the plaintiffs they faced arrest and criminal prosecution if they removed the signs, covered them up, placed something in front of them or posted a competing sign.

    Treadwell said the question he addressed in barring the sheriff from posting the warning signs was “not whether Sheriff Long’s plan is wise or moral, or whether it makes penological sense. Rather, the question is whether Sheriff Long’s plan runs afoul of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It does.”

    “Sheriff Long, without any authority, wants to put his speech in front of the plaintiffs’ homes,” the judge held. “He plans, in his speech, to level accusations at the plaintiffs, and he plans to ban the plaintiffs from responding to his accusations.”

    But front yards, particularly those closest to the public right-of-way, “are traditionally used as forums for residents’ speech; they are not traditional forums for government speech,” Treadwell said. “Someone who displays, or allows the display of, a sign in front of their home likely intends to convey that the message is endorsed by them, or allowed by them, or, at the very least, that they have acquiesced in the message. By requiring the plaintiffs to display these signs, Sheriff Long and his deputies are requiring the plaintiffs to effectively endorse or adopt, or at least acquiesce in, his message, not theirs, because the only message Sheriff Long will allow is his.”

    Plaintiffs Corey McClendon, Reginald Holden and Christopher Reed were represented by Atlanta attorneys Mark Begnaud and Mark Yurachek. Long was defended by Buford attorneys Terry Williams and Jason Waymire of Williams Morris & Waymire.

    Treadwell said the injunction doesn’t curtail the sheriff’s discretion “to act on specific information suggesting a risk to public safety.” But he warned Long that he “cannot post the signs over the named plaintiffs’ objections simply because their names are on the registry.”

    The judge also said that evidence from a hearing held prior to issuing the injunction tends to establish that the three plaintiffs have served their sentences, been rehabilitated “and are leading productive lives.”

    Two of the plaintiffs live with their parents, and one has a 6-year-old daughter living with him. The state, under its system for classifying sex offenders, has not determined that they pose an increased risk for committing another sexual offense, Treadwell said in his order.

    But Treadwell said in his order that state law does not require or authorize sheriffs to post signs in front of sex offenders’ homes or require sex offenders to allow them, nor does it forbid sex offenders from participating in Halloween festivities.

    Treadwell also dismissed contentions by the sheriff that the First Amendment protects his speech on public right-of-way, calling them “perplexing in light of Sheriff Long’s contention that it is illegal for the plaintiffs to post objecting signs.”

    “The defendants’ First Amendment argument, if correct, would apply equally to the plaintiffs,” Treadwell said. “In fact, the plaintiffs, because their residences abut the rights-of-way, have rights in the rights-of-way superior to those of the general public.”

    Treadwell also said the sheriff testified that “for as long as he has served as the sheriff he cannot recall a time when there has been an issue with sex offenders on Halloween.” He also said that the sheriff and his deputies have addressed the issue in previous years by personally notifying individuals on the sex offender registry to turn out their front lights and not answer the door for trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

    “Based on the evidence provided, the signs serve no legitimate safety function, and posting them would actually increase the costs and burdens of the defendants while infringing on the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” Treadwell said.

    In his order, the judge also took issue with the contention by the sheriff’s counsel that the plaintiffs “are free to disagree vehemently” with the warning signs and “remain free to believe or peacefully express the opposite message.”

    “It’s not clear from where the defendants retrieved these facts,” Treadwell noted. “But it is clear they are not the facts in this case. By their own admission, the defendants plan to restrict the plaintiffs’ speech if allowed to post the signs this Halloween.”

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