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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Virginia: School Bus Stops and Registered Sex Offenders. What is the Law and is There Really a Risk?


Its back-to-school time in the Commonwealth so what am I preparing for? 

What else? Virginia television news stations will most likely start running stories about Registered Sex Offenders living near school bus stops, schools and/or being on or near the route of students who are walking.  

Last autumn I found the following stories.
  1. NBC12 Richmond about one Colonial Height’s mother complaint
  2. WAVY 10 about one Va Beach mother’s complaint
  3. WRIC about a Deer Run neighborhood in Chesterfield and an RSO who has kept to himself
  4. WTVR about the Deer Run neighborhood in Chesterfield where the parents were mad that the bus stop was moved away from sex offender’s home after the WRIC story
  5. WVEC about Chesapeake bus stops and Registered Sex Offenders including a man whose conviction from 1989, 24 years ago
I’m sure there were others stories, I just missed them.

But these hype based, fear instilling stories aren’t just regulated to the autumn.
  1.      WVEC’s Laws don't prevent sex offenders from living near school bus stops in February 2014
  2.      NBC12 Richmond Live 5 News investigates: Sex offenders living near school bus stops in April 2014  but it was a story about South Carolina, NOT Virginia.
Are Registered Sex Offenders in Virginia legally prohibited from living, walking, driving or standing near or at school bus stops in Virginia? NO they are not. No where in Virginia code does it make it a crime for an RSO to be near or at a school bus stop! A bus stop is NOT school property; it is someone’s front yard, a public street corner or curb. That doesn’t mean Virginia authorities haven’t tried to charge RSO’s with it as crime, when it is NOT a crime. 

It is illegal for a Registered Sex Offender in Virginia to step one foot onto an actual school bus (2011’s HB2066, SB1185). 

Note: Some Virginia School Districts may have a “policy” banning RSO parents from bus stops or a specific distance from the stop. But a school policy is not a law which means you or your child could face a school punishment BUT no crime has been committed, no charges can be filled and the police should not be summoned or involved. Unless you are under VA-DOC Probation supervision, check your specific Probation rules and regulations.

In 2011 an extremely broad bill HB1523 was proposed that would have prohibited an RSO from walking their own children to and from a bus stop, from waiting in inclement weather with their child in their vehicle within 500 ft. of the bus stop or from even driving within 500 ft. a bus stop (leaving your street for work, stopping for the flashing lights, etc). I also publicly opposed this bill pointing out the state can’t make traveling on a public street a felony offense. The bill failed.   

Also in 2011 were HB2066  AND SB1185 which both proposed multiple changes in code one being school bus stops being off-limits to RSO’s, that portion with BOTH bills was removed before either passed through their chamber and onto the other chamber to then be signed into law. Why, because of the same reasons I opposed HB1523 in addition to the fact that school bus stops in Virginia are not marked with a sign because they move every year.

One of the most popular kind of bus stop bills (and unconstitutional), is restricting the residences of RSO’s in relation to the stops, in 2010-HB1004 and in 2011-HB1823  BOTH never even made it to committee after I lobbied against them, with facts not fear. The legal counsel to the VSCC and Senate Courts of Justice Committee have both publicly stated that such laws have been ruled unconstitutional across the country and if Virginia attempts to increase the distance or add additional locations to the current prohibition that that action could result in a legal challenge that takes down the entire statute.  


At the 2013 Virginia General Assembly session I publicly opposed Delegate Bob Marshall’s bill HB1369 which was drafted after another angry mother in Fairfax County (not his district) went to a local news station to complain about her child’s bus stop and a local RSO (in late 2012), there was a similar bill proposed in 2008. Both bills, both years failed.

Like most Virginians, the parents in the above news stories incorrectly assume that the Registered Sex Offenders with their residences and employers information all being public are a significant risk to public safety. That is a misnomer. It’s the unknown “sex offenders” who aren’t registered that pose a much, much higher threat to children. 

These “Bus Stop” stories not only mislead viewers but create a panic and lead to stories in other cities/counties by parents who watched the first story and want to be perceived as parents who are vigilant within their own neighborhoods.

The recidivism rate for Registered Sex Offenders is the second LOWEST of ALL crime in the U.S.: 
1.         Vehicle Thefts, 78.8%*
2.        Selling stolen property, 77.4%*
3.        Burglary, 74%*
4.        Larceny, 74.6%*
5.        Possessing stolen weapons, 70.2%*
6.        Robbery, 70.2%*
7.         Drugs, 27%*
8.        Rape 2.5%* / Sexual Assault or Rape 5.3%*
9.      Murder 1.2%*
*   - 2002 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics        *   - 2003 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics 

Statistically speaking when a new sex crime occurs in the Commonwealth over the next 12 months:
v      98% of the assaults committed will be by someone never convicted of a sex crime before, not by someone on the registry
v      95% will be by an acquaintance like a family member, a teacher, a coach, a trusted family friend, not a stranger
 
Has a child been abducted, molested or murder from a school bus stop in Virginia? 

Actually a child was abducted and molested from a Carrollton/ Isle of Wight, VA school bus stop in October 2013. The authorities retrieved DNA from the female when she was returned home and the DNA did not match any Registered Sex Offender in the Virginia DNA database which also includes convicted felons of various crimes. Unfortunately I don’t believe the perpetrator of the October 2013 crime has been found as of today. But even if a law banning RSO’s from school bus stops existed in Virginia it wouldn’t have been directed towards the perpetrator but towards those who we already monitor and manage and who did not commit the crime. 

And other than the Virginia authorities misinterpreting Virginia law in Bedford County back in October 2012. No Registered Sex Offender in Virginia has been accused of approaching a child at a school bus stop.  

In the Bedford County case the man who had actually been approaching the children at the bus stop and attempting to lure them to his home was NOT the misidentified RSO. 

The Bedford police and the parents had concluded that the person approaching the children must have been a Registered Sex Offender so they went to the registry and picked a photo that came close enough. The man they selected (who was arrested per the above link) had an alibi but he was still held without bond and charged with a felony for trespassing on school property, even though a bus stop is not school property. Days later the real perpetrator re-approached the bus stop and with the Registered Offender sitting in a jail cell, the authorities had NO choice but to conclude they had the wrong man.  

In the end the real perpetrator, who was approaching the children at the school bus stop and attempting to lure them to his home, could not be charged with any crime because he had not violated any Virginia law. 

Hysterical assumptions are what led angry parents to wrongfully identify and accuse an innocent Virginian, just because he was listed on the VSP Registry. 

This is where faulty rationale about those listed on the Virginia Registry has led us. The State ONLY had a misidentified man with a prior sex offense and THAT was enough to deny him bond, to charge him with a crime that doesn’t apply to other citizens and to presume he was guilty. Imagine if the real perpetrator had gone into hiding, The innocent man would have been convicted of a new felony and imprisoned for many years all because of the assumption that he must be the one because he’s on the registry.  

Feel Good” laws like residency restrictions or school bus stop bans against those listed on the public registry are not based on any facts but myth, fear, hate and prejudice. 

But yet local news stations will continue to run stories about RSO’s who aren’t bothering anyone living near schools, school bus stops or within the walking route of the students because it stirs up emotions amongst the public who has been led to believe everyone listed is guilty, dangerous, watching their children, will reoffend and can’t control themselves. Because sensational news gets viewers and on-line commenter’s and sadly that seems to be most important to those running the news stations, and those journalists who see themselves as “investigators who are on your side” facts like the lowest recidivism rates of any crime in the U.S. are simply insignificant.

I understand “sex offenders” make for good television, but making compliant RSO’s and their family members into targets with such programming is reprehensible. With more than 20,800 RSO’s in the Commonwealth and an additional 800 to 1,500 being added to our registry every year the go-to story of an RSO living near a school or a school bus stop will soon come to an end. Because there will be so many RSO’s due to the overly broad laws labeling everyone “sex offender” there won’t be any neighborhoods left without at least one RSO

The news stations would provide a public service if they focused on stories about preventing sexual abuse from occurring in the first place or traffic challenges students face waiting for buses and walking to and from school.
These are actual risks. Unlike those who are listed on the Virginia Registry, who aren’t bothering anyone, who are legally compliant and are just trying to survive and provide for their families, yes RSO's have families, and pay taxes.
So brace yourself, your local news station will probably be ramping up the back-to-school season with such stories over the next 6-7 weeks. I just hope they don’t show the name, street address, photograph or house exterior of any RSO’s who are just living their lives and haven’t bothered anyone. Such mass publicity could very well result in their eviction, loss of employment, vandalism or retaliation against their spouse, parents, roommate or children who also live at the address/home featured. 
And for what? Television ratings. 

Mary

Disclaimer:

I make every effort to confirm this list is accurate and up to date but errors do occur.

I strongly suggest if you have questions or concerns you consult with an Attorney.

Even the Virginia State Police (the owner of the Virginia Registry and manager/monitor of all the RSO’s) is not liable for giving out incorrect or out-dated information to Virginia’s RSO’s per § 9.1-917 . Virginia State Police’s Sex Offender Hotline (804) 674-2825 Mon-Fri 10AM-5PM (no evenings, no weekends, no holidays)