This Halloween, the city of Jacksonville will stop enforcing a local ordinance that required registered sex offenders to post a “no candy or treats here” sign every year. The city agreed to stop enforcing the law in response to a federal lawsuit it faced challenging the law’s constitutionality.
The lawsuit had cited a recent decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said a Georgia county had violated the U.S. Constitution when it placed signs in the yards of registered sex offenders that said, “No trick-or-treat at this address!!”
Ahead of a Thursday hearing requesting U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan strike down the ordinance, a lawyer for the city said it would voluntarily agree to stop enforcing the law while the case was pending.
Corrigan declined a request to strike down another part of the ordinance that bans “any display … if such display is primarily targeted to entice, attract, or lure a child.” Corrigan said he needed a more developed record before he could strike down that law. His ruling doesn’t preclude him from striking the ordinance later on if the case goes to trial or in response to another motion if he believes that the ordinance is unconstitutional.
One plaintiff, who was originally arrested in 2016 for having sex with a 17-year-old while she was a physical education teacher, said she asked the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office if she could display a manger during the Christmas season. The other plaintiff, who pleaded guilty to a child pornography charge in 2004, asked if he could display a cross. Their lawsuit said officers wouldn’t give them definitive answers.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Ray Taseff, told the judge that the plaintiffs would accept a modified version of the law that banned displays intended to attract children, but he argued the term “primarily targeted to” children is too vague of a standard, especially around Christmas when children are particularly attracted to holiday displays.
The city’s lawyer, Craig Feiser, claimed the plaintiffs’ manger and cross displays wouldn’t have violated the city ordinance, and he said that the ordinance already requires police officers to show that a sex offender knew that a display would attract children, even if the law doesn’t specifically say that.
“There should be no expectation that normal decorations will invite children onto properties during most holidays,” the city said in a court filing. “The prohibition does not prohibit simple displays of speech, lights or flags on Plaintiffs’ property.”
A legal filing from a Sheriff’s Office lieutenant said that police initially give warnings and don’t arrest people who violated the ordinances. But arrest reports contradict that.
Last year, for example, someone was arrested for having “a pumpkin on the front porch, a paper pumpkin cutout, a picture of Winnie the Pooh trick or treating and a picture of a jack-o-lantern attached to the front door.” The sex offender said he had a daughter and didn’t know the decorations were outside the house, according to the arrest report. He asked if he could get a warning. Instead, the officer arrested him. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two days in jail.
In 2019, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office used the holiday-display ordinance to arrest a sex offender for having a Christmas tree inside his home “in clear view from the street.”
That year, officers arrested another sex offender for having “18 plastic candy canes and 4 red bows on the front gate as well as two wreaths on the two posts of the carport.” He was held in jail on a $2,503 bond for that.
The office also arrested another suspect for having “numerous Christmas Decorations displayed.” The sex offender said his wife had put them up for their grandchild. The arrest report claimed that “he is not allowed to put up Halloween or Christmas decoration [sic] at his residence and he was currently in violation of a city Municipal Ordinance. The suspect advised he did not [know] he was not allowed to put up decorations at his residence because no one told him. He explained he will let his wife [know] she cannot put up decorations.” He was held in jail on a $5,003 bond.
Taseff, the plaintiffs’ attorney, praised the city for agreeing to stop enforcing its Halloween ordinance. He wants the city to agree to change the ordinance to ban intentional attempts to lure children, something the city argued that the law already does. Taseff said he was hopeful the city might be willing to settle the case and agree to voluntarily change the ordinance.
Feiser declined to comment.
“What this comes down to,” Taseff said, “is these plaintiffs want to express their faith in God at Christmastime.”