N.J. court eyes sex-offender laws Justices heard arguments on whether Cherry Hill and Galloway Twp. could pass ordinances limiting living sites.

Posted: March 25, 2009

The state Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on whether Cherry Hill and Galloway Townships have the right to pass ordinances restricting where convicted sex offenders can live.

Two lower courts have said that the ordinances - among more than a hundred similar ones passed in New Jersey municipalities - interfered with the state's Megan's Law, complex legislation devised in 1994 to deal with paroled sex offenders.

The ordinances in Cherry Hill and Galloway, Atlantic County, have been set up as the test cases for whether municipalities can pass their own, more restrictive laws.

William Cook, the attorney for Cherry Hill, admitted yesterday that the township's ordinance conflicted with Megan's Law, but he argued that the lower courts had gone too far in constraining municipal home rule.

"Megan's Law is a meaningless law if municipalities have no say in the process," he said.

In 2005, Cherry Hill and Galloway passed nearly identical ordinances that banned convicted sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, churches, or other places where children might congregate.

Three sex offenders affected by the laws quickly challenged.

In Cherry Hill, James Barclay and Jeffrey Finguerra, who were listed by the state as moderate-risk offenders, were in violation of the ordinance when they lived in the Hillside Motel on Route 38. Both men were staying there with the approval of their probation and parole officers.

In Galloway, an unidentified Richard Stockton College freshman, who had been convicted of a sex crime when he was 15, was told he was in violation of the ordinance when he moved into his dorm.

Separate lower courts first overturned the two ordinances in 2007.

Megan's Law requires sex offenders to register with law enforcement and have their living arrangements approved by a parole officer.

The law also says that information in the public Megan's Law registry cannot be used to deny housing to offenders. The lower courts said that was what Cherry Hill and Galloway did.

The Cherry Hill law would have made nearly the entire town off-limits to sex offenders.

"This is not a model of legislative draftsmanship," Cook said. "The real issue is municipal power."

With regards to the Richard Stockton student, Justice Barry Albin wondered about the logic of forcing him to live "2,500 feet off campus."

"Do you think the fact that you've made him into a commuter makes the community any more safe?" he asked in court yesterday.

Cook argued that municipalities needed to have some say in where sex offenders could live. But Albin said the court's mission in deciding the case was narrow.

"We're not a social laboratory," he said. "We're a court adjudicating the legality of the ordinance before us."

Dan Keashen, a spokesman for Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt, said Megan's Law was "well-established, but needs to be stronger."

The law was named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old Mercer County girl raped and killed by a convicted sex offender who lived in her neighborhood.

Keashen said Cherry Hill officials had lobbied lawmakers and the governor to give towns a say in where sex offenders could live and would continue to do so, regardless of the Supreme Court's ruling.

"We're going to continue to fight for the ability to have this option on the table," he said.

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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