A federal court has struck down a North Carolina sex offender law for being overly vague and restrictive.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4 th Circuit has struck down key provisions of a North Carolina sex offender law for violating the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution, according to WFMY News. The law had prohibited sex offenders, even if they had not been convicted of a sex crime related to minors, from going to places where children may be present. Critics of the law contended that it was so vague that it meant that sex offenders risked breaking it anytime they left their homes. Furthermore, the court found that the state offered no reasonable justification for the broad nature of the law.

First Amendment violations.

One provision of the law barred registered sex offenders from going to any place that was within 300 feet of a “location intended primarily for the use, care, and supervision of minors.” That provision, however, meant that sex offenders would be unable to visit malls, fast food restaurants with play areas, public streets, and parks. The 4 th Circuit, as Slate points out, struck down that provision since barring people from visiting public spaces is a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression and assembly. Registered sex offenders would not be allowed to visit the state capitol, for example, because it is within 300 feet of a children’s museum.

Restrictions on the First Amendment are allowed if the state can show that such restrictions would advance an “important or substantial government interest,” such as if the state could prove that the restrictions were a reasonable attempt to protect women and children. Oddly, however, the state made little attempt to prove that the restrictions were justifiable, relying largely on what it claimed to be “common sense.” The court rejected that rather weak argument, pointing out, for example, that there was no evidence provided showing that people convicted of sexually assaulting adults were more likely to later go on to sexually assault minors.

Fourth Amendment violations.

Furthermore, another provision of the law, which prohibited sex offenders from visiting places where minors gather for “regularly scheduled” activities, was also struck down for violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects due process rights. The law failed to define what “regularly scheduled” means and was so vague that a convicted sex offender risked breaking it every time he or she left the house.

The court struck down that provision because it meant that a reasonably intelligent person, whether that person was a convicted sex offender or law enforcement officer, would not be able to know what behaviors were prohibited under the law because it was so vaguely worded.

Criminal defense.

While it is good news that the court has struck down this draconian sex offender law, the bad news is that a law to replace the struck down law has already been passed by state lawmakers. While the new law has yet to be tested in the courts, it is a sign that lawmakers in North Carolina will continue to try to create harsh punishments for those convicted of sex crimes. For anybody who has been charged with a sex crime, it is imperative that they leek legal counsel right away. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help those who are facing these very serious charges, including by informing them of what their legal options are and helping them uphold their constitutional rights.

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