BUTTS COUNTY, Ga. (CNN) — A federal judge has ruled in favor of the three sex offenders who sued a Georgia sheriff after his deputies put signs in the men’s yards last year warning trick-or-treaters not to visit on Halloween.
The three men sued on behalf of all registered sex offenders in Butts County after finding out the sheriff’s office was planning on putting the same signs this year, according to the ruling.
“The question the Court must answer is not whether (Butts County Sheriff Gary Long’s) plan is wise or moral, or whether it makes penological sense. Rather, the question is whether Sheriff Long’s plan runs afoul of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It does,” the ruling says.
Georgia displays all registered sex offenders’ names, photos and addresses in a public online directory. But the statute “does not require or authorize sheriffs to post signs in front of sex offenders’ homes,” the ruling states.
Judge Marc Treadwell granted a preliminary injunction for the plaintiffs and ruled that sheriff Long and his employees can’t place the signs during this year’s Halloween season on the three men’s yards — but didn’t broaden the injunction to all sex offenders in the county.
He did however warn the sheriff in continuing this kind of policy.
“(Sheriff Long) should be aware that the authority for (his) blanket sign posting is dubious at best and even more dubious if posted over the objection of registrants,” the judge wrote.
The sheriff’s office began planting the signs in 2018 after the county’s chamber of commerce canceled an annual trick-or-treating event, Long said in a previous social media post. Deputies suspected that the cancellation would drive more kids to go door-to-door for candy.
In the lawsuit filed last month, registered sex offenders Christopher Reed, Reginald Holden and Corey McClendon claim the sheriff’s office employees trespassed onto their private property when they put the signs and “had no legal authority” to place the signs, causing the men anxiety and humiliation.
All three of the plaintiffs have “paid their debts to society” and now live “productive, law-abiding lives,” the ruling said.
The court’s ruling, the judge said, “in no way limits Sheriff Long’s discretion to act on specific information suggesting a risk to public safety.”
But the sheriff can’t put signs in the plaintiffs’ yards just because their names are on the registry, the ruling says.
The suit named Long, a deputy and three unnamed sheriff’s office employees who helped put up the signs, a complaint said. The sheriff’s office didn’t provide anyone for comment when reached.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Long said he “respectfully and strongly” disagreed with the ruling and that deputies will keep a “very strong presence in the neighborhoods where we know sex offenders are likely to be.”
“Deputies will have candy in their patrol vehicles and will interact with the children until the neighborhood is clear of trick-or-treaters to ensure the safety of our children on Halloween night,” he said.
He was told he’d be arrested if he removed the sign
After putting up the signs in the men’s yards before Halloween 2018, deputies also handed out leaflets which said the signs “shall not be removed by anyone other than the Butts County Sheriff Office,” court documents say.
Holden, one of the plaintiffs, said when he called a deputy after he saw the sign, he was told he’d be arrested if he removed it, according to the ruling.
Other deputies told McClendon that if he took the sign out of his yard “it would be criminal action,” the ruling said.
While the state’s code says sheriffs should inform the public of the sex offenders in each community, it “does not require or authorize sheriffs to post signs in front of sex offenders’ homes, nor does it require sex offenders themselves to allow such signs,” court documents say.
Georgia is not among the states that have instituted “no-candy laws,” which prohibit sex offenders on parole and probation from handing out candy on the holiday and require them to display signs revealing their status in their yards.
Some states, including New York and California, stop short of “no-candy laws” but require sex offenders to remain in their homes without interaction on Halloween and leave monitoring up to state departments of corrections.