Judge blocks sex offender law

LAWRENCEVILLE - Almost 300 registered sex offenders in Gwinnett can remain in their homes - at least for now.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper on Thursday extended a temporary injunction on a law that would have forced potentially thousands of people from their homes to apply to all registered sex offenders in Georgia. The order halts police from enforcing provisions of the state's new law regarding sex offenders, which was scheduled to take effect Saturday.

The law prohibits registered sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of any place where children gather - including schools, churches, parks, gyms, swimming pools and school bus stops. Violating the law results in a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

County records show all 292 registered sex offenders in Gwinnett live within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.

"This is a solid, rational, well-reasoned step by the court," said Sara Totonchi of the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Atlanta-based law firm that filed the lawsuit. "We are grateful that this court has recognized it's in the interest of public safety not to kick people out of their homes while it considers whether this law is constitutional."

The temporary restraining order remains in effect until July 11, when a hearing will be held to argue the constitutionality of the law, Totonchi said.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway was not surprised at the judge's decision.

"I think it's a natural thing," Conway said. "I fully expected this to occur. We'll be waiting for guidance from the courts at this point."

Earlier this week, Conway said the difficulty of complying with the law - especially in densely populated metro Atlanta where school bus stops abound - could force sexual predators underground or into rural counties poorly equipped to monitor them.

Supporters of the law say it is designed to protect children from sexual predators who could reoffend.

In related news, registered sex offender Bryan Sumrak filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Gwinnett County Superior Court against Sheriff Butch Conway and the state of Georgia claiming the new law violates the Georgia Constitution. Sumrak's attorney, C.J. "Jack" Spence of Lawrenceville, said the state Constitution affords even greater protection to Georgia residents than the U.S. Constitution does because it prohibits banishment.

"This is just so wrong in so many ways that I just almost don't know where to start," Spence said.

"I'm not a bleeding-heart liberal, I'm a right-wing Republican. But this is just wrong to turn people out of their homes when they've done everything they've been asked to do. They've paid their debt to society."

Scott Fuller, an attorney with the Gwinnett County law department, said the Sheriff's Department must enforce laws that are on the books.

"The sheriff is a law enforcer, so he's going to enforce whatever law has been passed. It is not his role to make determinations as to the constitutionality of a law," Fuller said.