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Halloween rules target sex offenders

It’s lights out on Halloween for 150 sex offenders in Kootenai County.

Sex offenders on felony probation – about half of all registered sex offenders in Kootenai County – are being ordered to stay home on Halloween.

“Operation Lights Out” requires sex offenders under the state’s supervision to adhere to a curfew and keep their porch lights off, and prohibits them from decorating their homes, answering their doors or passing out candy to trick-or-treaters.

“It’s like what you do when you run out of candy,” said Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray. “Close the blinds, turn out the lights and pretend you’re not there. That’s what the idea is.”

The program is a first for Kootenai County, but Boise-area sex offenders have been on restriction under Operation Lights Out for the past five years, Ray said. Similar programs are in place across the country.

Several states enact curfews for sex offenders, and some require all sex offenders under supervision to gather in one place while trick-or-treaters are on the street.

In Maryland, some sex offenders must post signs on their front doors that say, “No Candy At This Residence,” according to the Associated Press.

Coeur d’Alene counselor Tom Hearn, who provides treatment to sex offenders, said a number of options were discussed for Operation Lights Out. One idea was to round up sex offenders under supervision and have them all in one place on Halloween night.

“I think the alternative they have – keeping them inside and keeping them away from having anything to do with Halloween – is probably the best thing they could do for people on probation,” Hearn said.

Ray said there is a lot of publicity surrounding the department’s restrictions on sex offenders on Halloween, but sex offenders are intensely supervised year-round.

“We don’t just do this on Halloween,” he said. “These sex offenders get monitored pretty closely day in and day out because of the keen interest in many parties to make sure these guys don’t reoffend.”

Officers from the Department of Correction will patrol the county on Halloween, checking to see if sex offenders are in compliance. Notice was sent to all sex offenders under the department’s supervision, District Manager Eric Kiehl said.

Those caught breaking the rules will go to jail, Kiehl said.

Two Kootenai County defense attorneys are critical of the program.

“Certainly we want to protect all the children in the community. We want them to be safe and to be able to enjoy trick-or-treating and the Halloween experience,” Kootenai County Public Defender John Adams said. “We think it’s utterly ridiculous to threaten to throw people in jail for turning a porch light on, however.”

Defense Attorney Tim Gresback said the program plays off an unrealized fear.

“Here we’re creating a new police action squad to go out and address a problem that has never manifested itself in the community,” he said, adding, “In 20 years of defending cases, I have yet to run across a case” involving a sex offender having criminal sexual contact with a child on Halloween. Kiehl said no specific incident was the impetus for Operation Lights Out. He used to work for the Department of Correction in Ada County and decided to introduce the program in North Idaho after he was transferred, he said.

“This not only helps to protect the children in the community on Halloween, but it also protects the offender from accusations,” Kiehl said.

In the Boise area, law enforcement and probation and parole officers team up to enforce Operation Lights Out. No violations were reported last Halloween, said Ken Bennett, manager of probation and parole for District 4, which includes Ada County.

“Most of the sex offenders will comply and are happy to do so,” Bennett said. “They don’t want to be in any more trouble. They want their freedom.”

A staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said he doesn’t believe the organization has challenged programs such as Operation Lights Out.

“As long as it’s only applied to people who are on probation or parole, it’s a reasonable condition of probation,” said Matt EchoHawk, staff attorney for the ACLU of Idaho. “If it was somebody who had already completed their sentence, it might be a different story.”

Those who work with sex offenders say those under supervision aren’t necessarily the offenders parents need to worry about.

“I’m not terribly concerned about those men as much as I’m those who are not being watched,” said Hearn, the Coeur d’Alene counselor.

Halloween is a good time for parents to review safety rules with their children, Kiehl said. Sex offenders are rarely scary men in trench coats who lurk in the bushes, he said.

Victims of sexual abuse, more often than not, know their abuser.

“The more dangerous sex offenders out there are the ones who have not been caught,” Kiehl said.

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