Jackson -- A federal judge has barred the Butts County Sheriff's Office from placing "No trick-or-treat" signs at the homes of three registered sex offenders this Halloween.
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against Butts County Sheriff Gary Long and several employees of his office challenging the signs as a violation of First Amendment and property rights are seeking class-action status on behalf of all registered sex offenders in Butts County. But in an order filed on Oct. 29, Judge Marc Treadwell said the court was "not comfortable" expanding the injunction prohibiting the signs to all registered sex offenders.
"Although, as a practical matter, it might be assumed that anyone would object to such a message from law enforcement in front of their homes, the Court is not comfortable making that assumption as a foundation for injunctive relief," the order states. "Moreover, different circumstances could exist with regard to particular registrants."
The lawsuit, filed Sept. 24 by three Butts County residents on the Georgia sex offender registry, challenges the sheriff’s office’s practice of requiring residents on the registry to display signs reading: “Warning: No trick-or-treat at this address. A community safety message from Butts County Sheriff Gary Long.” The suit also alleges deputies trespassed in order to place and collect the signs last year.
The suit — on behalf of Christopher Reed, Reginald Holden and Corey McClendon — is pending in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in Macon. Arguments were heard in the case Oct. 24. The suit names Butts County Sheriff Gary Long and other sheriff’s office employees as respondents.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs, Mark Yuracheck and Mark Begnaud, argue in the complaint that Georgia’s sex offender registry statute does not require such signs to be placed at the homes of offenders, and that the Butts County Sheriff’s Office did not have permission to enter their properties to place or collect them.
In addition to arguing deputies trespassed, the suit claims the signs caused “anxiety, embarrassment and humiliation,” and compelled “petitioners to endorse speech which they found objectionable.”
"[T]he Defendants argued at the hearing that the public interest was served by allowing them to post the signs to protect the children trick-or-treating in Butts County. Neither the Court nor anyone else would disagree that children’s safety on Halloween is in the public interest," the order states. "But, again, the Defendants have provided no evidence showing that the Plaintiffs have posed or will pose any threat to children trick- or-treating on Halloween, and Holden and McClendon testified that they planned to shut off their lights and not answer the door on Halloween, just as they have in years past. On the other hand, the public interest always is served when citizens’ constitutional rights are protected, including sex offenders’."
Long, in a Facebook post, said deputies will have a heightened presence in the areas of registered sex offenders' homes on Halloween.
"While I respectfully and strongly disagree with the judge’s ruling, I must abide by the ruling. I sought the advice from the Prosecuting Attorneys Council in 2018, before we placed the signs, who gave us specific instructions on how to place them in compliance with Georgia Law...," Long said. "Just as I followed Georgia Law, I will follow the Judge’s ruling in this case. I will continue to fight for and protect our children by any legal means necessary."