Lawsuit: West Lake Hills’ sex offender ordinance too restrictive

Generic, file West Lake Hills City (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala)
Generic, file West Lake Hills City (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala)

WEST LAKE HILLS, Texas (KXAN) — Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, Inc., has filed a lawsuit against the City of West Lake Hills for its “sex offender residency restriction ordinance” (SORRO) which prohibits where registered sex offenders can live.

The nonprofit organization’s primary organizational purpose, as described in the petition, “is to promote a more balanced, effective and rational criminal justice system… and support persons required to register for sex related offenses and their families.”

The lawsuit claims West Lake Hills’ SORRO is legally invalid because “general law” cities in Texas, those with populations less than 5,000, have no constitutional authority to enact ordinances which prohibit where registered sex offenders may reside. Texas Voices for Reason and Justice says because of the city’s additional restrictions, a registered sex offender is essentially banned from residing within the City of West Lake Hills.

“It’s a problem. We’re getting calls from people and their families, who are registered all over Texas, that simply cannot find a place to live,” Texas Voices for Reason and Justice’s Executive Director Mary Sue Molnar told KXAN. “It (ordinance) pretty much BANISHES people who are registered”

West Lake Hills’ City Council passed its SORRO nearly 9 years ago, which states anyone on the sex offender registry cannot live within 1,000 feet of any defined premises where children commonly gather, including a playground, school, video arcade facility, youth center, day care center, public swimming pool, or school bus stop. A violation can be punished with a fine of up to $500 for each day a violation exists.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s website, the state sex offender registration program itself “does not prohibit registered sex offenders from living or going near places frequented by children. However, Texas community supervision and parole laws, as well as city ordinances, may require the imposition of a ‘child safety zone.’  A ‘child safety zone’ prohibits certain individuals from going in, on, or within a specified distance of a premise where children commonly gather (i.e. schools, day care facilities, or playgrounds). A violation of the ‘child safety zone’ can result in the revocation of the offender’s probation or parole, or a citation.”

According to the state sex offender registry, just four sex offenders currently reside within the West Lake Hills zip code.

“If people don’t have a place to live, they’re less likely to register. And then law enforcement doesn’t know where they are,” Molnar said.

West Lake Hills’ attorney tells us City Council has not yet decided whether the retain, amend, or repeal the ordinance.

Mary Ann Benson is a proud grandma and owner of Kinda Krazy Kids & Kompany, which opened in West Lake Hills 13 years ago.

“A children’s store or a baby’s store is a very happy place to be, and that was a goal,” Benson said, when thinking back to the motivation behind opening the shop.

The thing is, happiness, often hinges on safety. Something that paramount for parents, grandparents, and really, anyone.

“ANYONE, with any knowledge and love for people and relationships would want them to be safe. Anyone,” Benson said. “Especially our children, who are innocent and don’t have anyone necessarily to protect them.”

Pending lawsuits will determine just how far ordinances can go in the name of safety. Texas Voices for Reason and Justice has filed 14 lawsuits against Texas cities with a population of under 5,000 people that either did not repeal their sex offender ordinances, or did not respond to Texas Voices for Reason and Justice’s letters sent in early November.

KXAN’s Kylie McGivern asked, “For those who may listen tonight and say, well this is just an organization that’s looking to defend sex offenders,  I mean – what would you say to that?”

Molnar responded saying, “It’s not that we’re trying to defend or minimize anything, we believe that people who break the law should be punished. But as some point we have to allow them the basic needs. Which IS a place to live.”

Molnar told KXAN that the following cities repealed their residency restrictions after the organization sent letters advising the claims that are now the basis of lawsuits against 14 cities: Orchard, Archer City, Oak Ridge, Justin, Cottonwood Shores, Winters, Hollywood Park, Pottsboro, Whitewright, Mount Enterprise, Van Horn, Woodville, Hubbard, Hamlin, and Shiner.

We’re told the following cities received notice today that they are being sued: Alvarado, Argyle, Brazoria, Bullard, Farmersville, Fulton, Hickory Creek, Meadows Place, Mount Vernon, Ponder, Oak Point, West Lake Hills, Westworth Village, and Winona.

“There may be a second round of lawsuits filed. We are still confirming information, and a few cities have asked for extensions until the middle of January,” Molnar explained.

It’s important to point out you can easily find out if a sex offender lives near you. The Texas Department of Public Safety lists the addresses of sex offenders on a statewide database. You can look at each zip code individually, or go through an online map to see who lives in your neighborhood. KXAN checked, and many of the sex offenders who live in Austin are located east of I-35.
Zip codes 78723, 78753 and 78741 have about 100 or more sex offenders. There are also several dozen registered in Downtown Austin. The majority are located at the ARCH Homeless Shelter.

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