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Winnisquam towns react to sex offender decision in Dover

August 12, 2009
WINNISQUAM — The lower court may have ruled Dover's registered sex offender ordinance null, but similar ordinances in Tilton and Northfield that prohibit registered sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school or other places where children congregate will still be enforced for the time being.

"I want to take a look at the language the court used and bring that to the board," Tilton Police Chief Robert Cormier said last week.

Cormier said he also wanted to consult the attorney general and the Local Government Center before he even thinks about whether the ordinance should be revoked.

"I hesitate to make a knee-jerk decision," he said.

According to selectmen Chair Katherine Dawson, though, the town has no choice but to enforce the ordinance.

"It was a vote of Town Meeting," she said. "Until Town Meeting votes it out or it's ruled out by court order, it has to be enforced."

Tilton's ordinance specifically restricts registered sex offenders from residing within 2,500 feet of schools, day cares, parks or any other place where minors regularly congregate. The ordinance does not apply to registered offenders who already have an established residence in such zones prior to the ordinance's passage in 2007, or to offenders who already reside within 2,500 feet of a newly built school or other child-oriented structure.

"It's very close to Dover's," Dawson said of the ordinance. "It was fashioned out of Dover's."

In 2005, Dover became the first municipality in New Hampshire to put such an ordinance into effect. It was challenged by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of convicted sex offender Richard Jennings, last year. Earlier this month, Dover District Court Judge Mark Weaver ruled that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates equal protection rights and doesn't accomplish its intended purpose of protecting children.
The city will no longer enforce the ordinance, though it still has time to appeal the decision.

Dawson said she was the only selectman at that 2007 Town Meeting who spoke against the adoption of Tilton's ordinance.

"It doesn't allow for any discretion," she said, noting that some registered sex offenders are labeled as such after a consensual incident between a boyfriend and girlfriend that ends in a fight or with a parent getting involved. "That was my biggest problem."

So far, Tilton hasn't had any trouble enforcing the ordinance.

In Northfield, no decision has been made regarding whether to enforce its sex offender ordinance, which is an amalgamation of Dover's, Tilton's and Franklin. Because the Board of Selectmen put it into effect without a vote at Town Meeting, the board also has the authority to stop enforcing it. According to Town Administrator Glenn Smith, the Northfield selectmen were scheduled to discuss the issue at their meeting Tuesday night, after press time. Northfield Police Chief Steve Adams did not return a call for comment.

Over in Sanbornton, selectmen avoided having to deal with the ramifications of the Dover decision after "indefinitely" tabling a proposed ordinance that, like its neighbors, would have restricted registered sex offenders' residences. The selectmen made that decision in 2007, just after Tilton and Northfield passed their ordinances. At the time, they said the town would not benefit from such an ordinance in part because of the "likelihood of litigation." They also cited arguments that had been made during public hearings in Tilton and Northfield. At both, Tilton resident Pat Clark cited statistics that showed such laws drive sex offenders underground. At Northfield's hearing, NHACLU staff attorney Barbara Keshen said 90 percent of sexual crime victims are related to or know their predator, and that the "stranger in the bush" crime is extremely rare.

Martin Lord Osman
Coos County Commissioners
Tilton School
Town & Country
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