Kill HB1628 before it gets someone killed

Work for Smarter Criminal Laws

State House Alert Number Eight • April 11, 2010

By Chris Dornin

Mark April 20 on your calendar, the showdown on sex offender bills. All of our freedoms are at risk.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hears citizen testimony the afternoon of April 20 on two House bills that would have huge impact on all registered sex offenders and their families. You who are reading this need to be there to stand up for their rights and your own.

The public hearing starts at 2:30 PM in room 103 of the State House for the best sex offender legislation in years, HB1484. You should plan to arrive half an hour early to make sure you have a seat. Hearings on other less crucial crime bills will begin at 2:00 PM.

Why is HB1484 so important? It would stop towns from passing residency restrictions against people on the Internet public registry run by the State Police. The Dover District Court decided last August that a similar city ordinance against sex offenders violated basic property rights. The bill easily passed in the House with support from the Manchester Police, the Department of Safety, Child and Family Services, and the Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

The very next hearing in room 103 is for HB1628, meant to give neighborhoods the green light to drive sex offenders and their loved ones out of town by shunning, stalking, and shaming them. Two police chiefs have told me privately they fear HB1628 could get sex offenders killed amid the widespread hysteria against them. It will ramp up the pressure on an unpopular minority already tyrannized by the majority.

The text of the bill seems tame enough. It authorizes the Department of Safety to give local police some voluntary guidelines for notifying the neighbors when a sex offender is released into their midst. Such guidelines might make sense if the public registry made sense.

But nobody can tell which of the 2,700 names and mug shots are the relatively few remorseless predatory rapists, or the incest offenders unlikely to reoffend if they have no further contact with their victim, or guys stung on the Internet without an actual victim, or Romeos who loved their underage girlfriends. Nobody can tell if the supposed demons branded by the public registry have wives and children who will share in a hostile welcome to the playground or the grocery store.

None of the names comes with a clinical risk score based on the Static-99 evaluation tool or another reliable assessment. Therefore, most communities will act on their unenlightened self-interest and use active notice against everyone on the registry. Towns will compete with towns to give the harshest greetings. Disingenuous voluntary guidelines will do nothing to protect the new neighbors.

This intent of the bill is not immediately obvious from its brief text. But it grows out of the almost murderous anger the last eight months in Hooksett against registered sex offender Joel Dutton. His neighbors urged the town council to enact residency restrictions to drive him away after his arrest in September for the alleged new felony of improperly touching a child. Hooksett Police Capt. Paul Cecilio warned the town council soon afterward that local housing limits on sex offenders would never work.

“It has to be at the state level,” he was quoted telling WMUR.

Dutton’s neighbor, Gayle Gillepsie, expressed her disappointment to WMUR.

“There’s not much we can do about him leaving,” she said. “But at least we can protect our children. We have that right.”

Cecilio said the Hooksett Police would begin alerting neighbors whenever a sex offender moved in, and the town web site would add a link to the State Police registry of local offenders. Town councilor David Boutin, then a state rep and now a senator, vowed to pursue residency restrictions anyway.

“We’ll begin the process of studying how the state can possibly develop a model ordinance for communities that will withstand a constitutional test,” he said in a WMUR interview.

Instead, he sponsored HB1628 the next day. In his testimony at the House Criminal Justice Committee hearing, he said the bill would ease fears of liability and get police departments to use active notice of sex offenders more often. In other states it has meant PTA sessions the newcomers are not invited to. It has meant wanted-style posters on neighborhood telephone poles. It has meant forums like the Hooksett Council meeting urging officials to evict Dutton from town.

When Dutton was released on bail, the neighbors started a Joel Dutton vigilante website with articles like, “Force the Pedophiles to Run for the Hills.” That opinion piece described him as a “nasty mess.”

“He’s a fat guy, balding with gray hair, and he is creepy as all hell.” the blog said. “His name is Joel Dutton.”

In another entry, the site owner wrote, “Let me tell you, driving a registered sex offender out of your neighborhood is no easy task. It’s not like we can stand outside Joel’s door and picket all day long. The police would make us leave. We can make his life difficult within reason, but these criminals have far too many rights.”

Some of the anonymous comments from readers of the site can only be construed as death threats.

“Hang ’em high and let the sun set on ’em. Only in a perfect world right? Haha” — Josh T.

“I hope you guys get rid of the bastard. What a piece of crap.” — MTgirl.

“This is an incestuous family of whack-jobs and psychopaths, and it makes me feel good to know they are going down.” — Steve.

“You show true restraint by not beating the tar out of this lowlife.” — Chris Johnson.

The authorities later dropped all charges against Dutton, but the website continues. Boutin is still pushing for his legislation. The senators need to hear your horror stories about vigilantism. This alert is the first in a week-long series of reports on HB1628. If you allow it to pass, it might destroy a precious part of the New Hampshire advantage—our respect for human dignity and the rule of law.

Chris Dornin is a prison volunteer, a former prison counselor, and a retired N.H. State House reporter.