Atlanta, GA – A federal appeals court has concluded the Butts County sheriff violated sex offenders’ rights by putting up signs in their yards on Halloween warning children not to trick-or-treat at their homes.
Shortly before Halloween in 2018, Butts County Sheriff Gary Long sent his deputies out with signs that read, “Warning! No trick-or-treat at this address!!,” and instructed them to place the signs near the mailboxes at each of the county’s 57 registered sex offenders’ homes, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The signs did not specifically note that the individuals who lived there were sex offenders, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported.
Deputies passed out leaflets to the homeowners telling them the signs could not be removed by anyone except a Butts County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) employee.
Sheriff Long later said the action was intended to help protect the community’s children.
“My office took precautions and placed signs indicating ‘No Trick or Treat’ at each registered sex offender’s residence in the County,” he said in a public notice. “This was done to ensure the safety of our children.”
But three disgruntled sex offenders – Corey McClendon, Reginald Holden, and Christopher Reed – pushed back against the signs and filed a federal lawsuit claiming the sheriff’s action violated their rights under the First Amendment, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
According to the Georgia Sex Offender Registry, McClendon was convicted of statutory rape in 2001.
In 2002, Holden was convicted of lewd, lascivious battery sex with victim 12 to 15 years of age.
Reed was convicted of aggravated sexual battery and criminal sexual assault of a minor in 2007.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Marc Treadwell initially granted a temporary injunction just before Halloween in 2019, alleging the BCSO provided no evidence that the sex offenders posed any risk of harm to trick-or-treaters.
Treadwell later ruled the sheriff could place the signs in the offenders’ yards, and said the offenders were free to put up their own signs disagreeing with the sheriff’s message, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision on Jan. 19 and determined Sheriff Long’s signs violated the right of the homeowners by forcing them to host a government message on their own private property, according to the paper.
The signs qualified as “compelled government speech,” the panel concluded, according to the New York Post.
Their decision was unanimous.
Senior Judge Frank Hull said the ruling applies to Holden because he owns his property, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Reed and McLendon both live with their parents, so the actual homeowners would need to be added to the litigation for the ruling to benefit them.
Hull noted that sex offenders are not barred from “participating in Halloween” under Georgia law, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The judge further pointed out that Sheriff Long acknowledged he has no knowledge of any registered sex offenders having committed new offenses or having unauthorized contact with minors since he took office in 2013.
“The sheriff has not provided any record evidence that the registrants in Butts County actually pose a danger to trick-or-treating children or that these signs would serve to prevent such danger,” Hull wrote, according to Courthouse News.
“At this stage, neither McClendon, Reed, nor the sheriff have shown they are entitled to summary judgment,” the ruling read, according to the New York Post. “Thus, we vacate the entry of judgment for the sheriff on McClendon’s and Reed’s First Amendment claims and remand for further proceedings.”
The BCSO did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling, Courthouse News reported.