A group of registered sex offenders in Western North Carolina say the sheriff forced them to check in with local law enforcement or face arrest on Halloween night in 2019.
Now they’re suing.
At least 11 men and the nonprofit group North Carolinians for Rational Sex Offender Laws accused Cherokee County and Sheriff Derrick Palmer of violating their constitutional rights in a lawsuit moved to federal court Wednesday. The case was originally filed in state court in early October but defense attorneys opted to change venues, citing issues related to federal case law.
Attorneys for the offenders, defense attorneys and a representative for Cherokee County and the sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment Thursday.
The lawsuit seeks $5 million in damages and a jury trial, according to court filings.
According to the website of the North Carolinians for Rational Sex Offender Laws, the group was created in 2016 as an affiliate of a national chapter and advocates for “legal reforms that will protect and restore (sex offenders’) fundamental rights to life and liberty.”
Many of the 11 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit have been charged with taking indecent liberties with a minor, according to the N.C. Sex Offender registry. Other charges include felonious restraint against a minor, sexual arousal with a child, sexual battery and lewd acts with a child.
One of the offenders is labeled a “recidivist,” or repeat offender.
According to the lawsuit, deputies with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office hand-delivered notices to all of the registered sex offenders in their jurisdiction on Oct. 9, 2019.
Cherokee County is in the far left corner of the state on the Tennessee border and had 84 registered sex offenders as of November 2020.
“The said notice commanded each registered sex offender to appear at the National Guard Armory on October 31, 2019, by no later than 5:30 p.m. for verification of identification and update of registry photograph,” court filings state.
Some of the men said they’d already had their photographs taken with 30 days of receiving the notice — meaning they were in compliance with state and federal registration requirements, according to the complaint. But the notice reportedly threatened arrest for anyone who didn’t show.
When the registered sex offenders arrived at the armory on Halloween, court filings allege a notice on the door said the check-in process wouldn’t start until 5:30 p.m.
“The plaintiffs were not free to leave until after their identification was verified and their photograph was updated under threat of arrest and incarceration for failing to comply with the said notice,” the lawsuit states.
Attorneys for the sex offenders said the mandatory Halloween meeting violated their clients’ constitutional rights in several ways. First, they wrote that sex offenders are only required to appear at the sheriff’s office under North Carolina state law — and the armory building is in no way affiliated.
They also said law enforcement can only seek an updated photo if the current one no longer represents the offender’s “true likeness” and the request is made in-person by the sheriff.
The request should also allow for the offender to appear at the sheriff’s office during regular business hours, according to court filings.
Some of the sex offenders named in the lawsuit said they weren’t told in person and received a notice taped to their doors instead. They were also ordered to appear at a building not affiliated with the sheriff’s office after normal business hours, the complaint states.
Attorneys for the registered sex offenders also allege unreasonable search and seizure and false imprisonment.
The lawsuit echoes similar actions taken by local law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions on Halloween — one of which has been successfully challenged in court.
A sheriff in Georgia was rebuffed for placing “No Trick-Or-Treat” signs in sex offenders’ lawns last year. The registrants sued in federal court, and a judge ordered Butts County Sheriff Gary Long to remove the signs because they violated the offenders’ civil rights.
Nonetheless, in Gaston County, NC, WBTV reported Sheriff Alan Cloninger requires all of the registered sex offenders on probation or parole to meet him at the county courthouse on Halloween, where he spends the evening going over changes in sex offender laws.
That didn’t happen this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the TV station.
Registered sex offenders in South Carolina, meanwhile, are subject to a strict 5:30 p.m. curfew on Halloween, meaning they can’t have their outside lights on or answer the door for trick-or-treaters, the Associated Press reported. They also aren’t allowed to attend Halloween parties or carnivals.