JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Supreme Court sided Tuesday with two sex offenders, ruling they cannot be barred from handing out Halloween candy and living within 1,000 feet of schools and child care centers because those restrictions weren't in place when they were convicted.
Missouri enacted the sex offender restrictions more than two decades after the two men were convicted. A divided Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that it would be unconstitutional to force the men to comply.
At issue was a provision in the state constitution that bars retrospective laws, which the Supreme Court has defined to mean new obligations, duties or disabilities with respect to past actions.
Judge Michael Wolff in the court's majority opinion said the sex offender restrictions changed the effect of the men's previous convictions and therefore were invalid. Wolff was joined by Judges Patricia Breckenridge, Laura Denvir Sith and Richard Teitelman.
"It is the conviction itself, not any evidence of present or future dangerousness, that alone imposes the obligation, creating a direct retrospective additional obligation," Wolff said.
Judge Mary Russell, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice William Ray Price and Judge Zel Fischer, said the Halloween and residency restrictions were "collateral consequences" that could be levied for past criminal convictions because state officials had a legitimate interest in protecting children.
Russell said the sex offender rules can be applied because people don't have a right to presume that state laws could never be changed to limit where people can live or what they can do on Halloween.
Tuesday's ruling was the most recent instance in which the Supreme Court has tried to determine how to impose new sex offender restrictions on those previously convicted of crimes. It combined two cases argued in 2009.
The first focused on a 2004 law that barred sex offenders from moving within 1,000 feet of schools and day care centers. The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that sex offenders could not be forced to move away from where they lived when the law was enacted.
A man convicted of five sex offenses in 1999 challenged the 1,000-foot rule because he wanted to move in with his fiancee in the St. Louis suburb of O'Fallon. Court documents identified the man only by the initials F.R.
Michael Gross, an attorney for F.R., said he didn't know if the man still intended to move in with his fiancee.
An attorney for St. Charles County who defended the 1,000-foot buffer zone did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
In the second case, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors in Audrain County could not pursue a misdemeanor charge against Charles Raynor, of Mexico, Mo., after police spotted a woman handing out candy from his house on Halloween in 2008.
Raynor was convicted about two decades ago in Washington state for indecent liberties with a child who was younger than 14. A 2008 law, requires sex offenders to avoid all Halloween-related contact with children, remain at home, leave outdoor house lights off and post a sign stating: "No candy or treats at this residence."
Audrain County prosecutor Jacob Shellabarger said he didn't think the prosecution had been out of line.
"And now that we know where the line is, we won't cross it," he said.
The Halloween restrictions have prompted other court challenges, and Ellen Flottman, a state public defender who represented Raynor, said Tuesday's ruling likely will mean most of those challenging the rule cannot be prosecuted under it.