Public Act 295 of 2020, effective March 24, 2021, amends parts of the Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA). Most significantly for schools, the amendments eliminate the “student safety zone,” which was defined as “the area that lies 1,000 feet or less from school property.” Before the amendments, SORA prohibited registered sex offenders from living, working, or loitering in that zone.
The amendments were enacted to align with a series of court rulings from Doe v Snyder. In 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan found that the student safety zone provisions were unconstitutionally vague. SORA, the district court reasoned, did not sufficiently define whether the 1,000-foot exclusion zone was measured between property lines or as people actually travel. Without precise boundary lines, registrants were faced with unknowingly violating SORA or unnecessarily restricting where they lived, worked, and loitered.
The district court also declared unconstitutionally vague the definition of “loiter,” which was “to remain for a period of time and under circumstances that a reasonable person would determine is for the primary purpose of observing or contacting minors.” The district court took issue with the meaning of a registrant’s “primary purpose,” particularly for school movie nights and parent-teacher conferences.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit only addressed how SORA improperly imposed retroactive punishment. For instance, while the “student safety zone” and its prohibited activities were not added to SORA until 2006, those provisions were enforced against those who registered as a sex offender before then.
The Sixth Circuit remanded the case to the district court, which ruled that the retroactive application was unconstitutional. That ruling, however, did not address the constitutionality of the “student safety zone” or “loiter” definitions. In addition, without a court mandate, law enforcement continued to enforce the student safety zone prohibitions.
A class action lawsuit was then filed to include all people who are or will be subject to registration under SORA. The district court reaffirmed its stance that the definitions were unconstitutionally vague and invalidated the student safety zone provisions against all registrants. The district court also enjoined State enforcement of the student safety zone.
Despite the student safety zone’s abolishment, the Revised School Code still prohibits schools from employing or hiring individuals who have been convicted of a listed sex offense. In addition, school officials may still implement reasonable rules and regulations to safeguard students, staff, and third parties while on school property. But, a policy that simply references or restates SORA’s previous definitions of “student safety zone” and “loiter” may be similarly challenged as unconstitutionally vague. Board policies that reference or restate those SORA definitions require revision.