Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is preparing to fight what could be the beginning of significant backlash against his signature issue over the past year — banning sex offenders from local parks.
After successfully pushing for a ban at county parks, Rackauckas spent many hours and nights this year attending city council meetings across the county lobbying for ordinances that would make it illegal for registered sex offenders to enter city parks.
The intensive lobbying effort paid off, with 15 cities voting to adopt such bans.
But then a registered sex offender sued, and a panel of Orange County Superior Court judges ruled last month that the county’s ban was illegal because it preempted state law and created a confusing patchwork of local restrictions.
That decision could end up before the state's 4th District Court of Appeal, which will decide by Dec. 15 whether to take on the issue.
If the appellate court affirms the Superior Court’s decision, it could spell doom for Rackauckas’ high-profile campaign.
It appears that reversals and criticism have already begun.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has decided to stop enforcing the ordinance in county territories and some cities because of advice from the county counsel’s office in the wake of the court ruling.
And following heated exchange between Lake Forest Mayor Kathryn McCullough and Rackauckas, Lake Forest City Council members last Tuesday night voted to repeal their ordinance.
Officials in other cities across the county are considering doing the same.
Despite those setbacks, Rackauckas remains undeterred.
At last week's annual Orange County Inns of Court annual holiday event, Rackaucakas said he sharply disagrees with the county counsel’s position and the ruling of the lower court.
Rackauckas said his office is confident in their legal position that the sex offender bans are constitutional and that county officials need not stop enforcing the ban unless the appellate court decides to take on the issue and offers an adverse ruling.
DA officials have taken the stance that regardless of how many sex crimes are actually prevented, defending children from sexual predators is worth fighting for and that the cities were warned of possible court battles if they adopted the ordinances.
“We have always said that this is a law that will never show up in the statistics. You will never know what child will not get raped or not get molested because this law existed,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, Rackauckas' chief of staff.
Yet to critics the sex offender park ban is an unnecessary law, seemingly intended to score easy political points and now placing taxpayers at risk for costly lawsuits.
Lake Forest officials sharply criticized the law as ineffective before City Council members voted to repeal it.
A staff report states that since such bans have taken effect, “only two have resulted in prosecution, and the court recently overturned the sole conviction on appeal.”
“In the opinion of Police Services, and in staff’s analysis, the City Ordinance was neither found to have an appreciable effect, nor used as an effective enforcement tool over the course of the last year,” the staff report reads.
District attorney officials seemed poised to fight for the law.
Rackauckas acknowledges that from the outside, the ban might seem like cheap politics, but he insists it about much more.
“This isn’t about me,” Rackauckas said.
In an Oct. 9 letter to Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait urging approval of a similar ordinance in that city, Rackauckas cited the Fullerton incident that he describes as the “genesis” of the county ban.
In that 2010 instance, a registered sex offender named Eric Hinnenkamp moved into a house 155 feet from a park, according to the letter. Residents reacted with alarm, and the district attorney’s office drafted the county ban in response, Rackauckas said.
In Lake Forest, Rackaucakas noted, the city’s ban arose from an incident in which a registered sex offender had been taking pictures and video of children in a city park.
A resident who recognized the sex offender from the Megan’s Law website — an online database that makes public the residences and faces of registered sex offenders — called city police, Rackaucakas said.
Because Lake Forest had yet to adopt the ban, the resident was told that the sex offender wasn’t breaking any laws.
Despite that incident, McCullough had tough words for Rackauckas when he attended last week’s Lake Forest council meeting to defend the ban.
McCullough asked who would cover the city’s legal fees. “At this time, I’m not willing to put our city’s future and dollars in an ordinance I cannot assure my citizens that their money will be returned to them. Our citizens already know, our citizens know this is a safe city,” she said.
Lake Forest is one of four cities to be sued in a separate federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinances.
“If one kid gets groomed [befriended by a molester] in a park and molested somewhere else, all the arguments here pale in comparison,” Rackauckas shot back.
While county supervisors don’t seem poised to fight for the ban, some city officials favor such laws.
At least one city leader has said that he will fight to protect his city’s ordinance, regardless of questions about the cost or the strength of the city’s legal position.
Irvine Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, a father of two girls, said that if necessary, he will push to stand up for his city’s ordinance in court.
Irvine’s ordinance was also invalidated as part of the court ruling on the county ban, according to a Lake Forest staff report.
“I feel strongly about it, and I am prepared to stand up for what I believe in and for what I voted for, and if that means standing up for it in court, so be it,” Lalloway said.