Federal Court Shoots Down Missouri Law Requiring Signs in Yards of Sex Offenders on Halloween

In a case that is sure to stir up some emotions on both sides of the fence, a federal court held today that Missouri’s law requiring the sheriff to put a sign in all sex offenders’ yards on Halloween warning that they are not allowed to hand out candy is “likely” unconstitutional and granted a temporary restraining order forbidding placement of the signs.

While the case is not over yet, the TRO imposed by Judge John A. Ross of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri ensures that, at least for this Halloween, no signs will be compelling sex offenders to speak in violation of their First Amendment rights. That’s how the judge framed the argument in this case, and it’s how the state lost its plea to put the signs in sex offenders’ yards. It’s also not the first time Missouri’s strict Halloween laws on sex offenders have been shot down in federal court.

Not surprisingly, the state cited a debunked Supreme Court ruling saying that the reoffense rate of sex offenders is “frightening and high.” In the case of McKune v. Lile, 536 U.S. 24, 122 S. Ct. 2017 (2002), where the State of Kansas cited a fictitious psychologist’s study claiming that almost all sex offenders reoffend after release from prison, Justice Anthony Kennedy made that statement.

That “study,” however, was nothing more than an article in a psychology magazine by a service promoting its sex-offender treatment program. It was not a peer-reviewed study, and no other study was cited in McKune v. Lile. While this “frightening and high” risk of recidivism by sex offenders has been proven wrong by numerous real studies on the subject, and even the author of the article admits it was merely an advertisement, the government continues to use McKune v. Lile to convince courts that sex offenders always reoffend and there are not enough laws to keep the public safe.

And who wants to look soft on sex offenders? So, the courts go along and uphold some of the most nonsensical laws aimed at sex offenders. Just look at Florida’s new law imposing the death penalty on sex offenders. They’ve literally embraced the “take ’em out back and shoot ’em” mentality and made it legal to do so (even though the Supreme Court has said it’s unconstitutional, but that’s another story).

So, back to Missouri’s No trick-or-treating signs in sex offenders’ yards. The sticking point for the court was that the law wasn’t crafted in a way that would achieve the purpose of protecting the public from sex offenders on Halloween:

Because the sign posting requirement of the Halloween Statute was not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest, and there are other highly effective alternatives to achieve Defendants’ interest in protecting children from sex offenders on Halloween, the Court finds it fails strict scrutiny. 

The court therefore held that the signs could not be posted in any sex offender’s yard, expanding its ruling beyond just those who brought the case to court. A hearing is set for November 9, 2023, at 10:30 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Room 12N, where the court will decide what to do with the law after the TRO expires in two weeks.

See Sanderson v. Bailey, No. 4:23CV1242 JAR, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 192854 (E.D. Mo. Oct. 27, 2023).

See also Federal Court Grants TRO Stopping Halloween Sign Requirement for Registrants in Missouri

Dale Chappell is an expert on federal postconviction relief and the author of hundreds of articles and several books on challenging illegal and wrongful convictions and sentences. He is a former staff writer for Criminal Legal News Magazine and the author of the blog zenlawguy.com.

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