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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
October 20, 2006

Sex bill raises worries that cruisers' cars may be seized

Columbus--A state lawmaker�s proposed sex offender bill is raising concerns that some parts of it could be used against law-abiding gay men.

State Sen. Marc Dann�s new measure might lead to police seizing the cars of men cruising in parks, say some LGBT advocates.

Dann, a suburban Youngstown Democrat who is also a candidate for Ohio attorney general, announced his intention on October 10 to introduce a bill �to help Ohio comply with the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection Act of 2006.�

In a statement, Dann spelled out what he plans to include in the bill, though it will not be introduced until next week. According to sources close to the senator, it hasn�t been drafted yet.

The federal law, which is getting new attention because it was partly written by disgraced Florida Republican Mark Foley, is supposed to protect children from internet sex predators, curb child pornography and improve sharing of offender reporting between states. It was signed into law last July.

Dann�s proposal says he wants to add a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations provision to state law, which will allow confiscation of property used in the commission of a sex crime.

Dann also wants the measure to declare that �any sex offense is a corrupt activity for purposes of Ohio�s RICO law.�

A prosecutor who is an expert on both property forfeiture and sex crime prosecution said those two provisions could be used to target gay men in public places who may not be doing anything illegal.

�What is a �sex crime�? And what is the predicate for RICO?� asked the prosecutor, who requested that he not be named.

The questions stem from periodic police �sweeps� of men seeking same-sex partners in parks or parking lots. While some are arrested for public sex, others are sometimes cited for simply asking for a date. The charge is often public indecency, which can be considered a sex offense.

�I�m worried that this may result in a situation like Michigan,� said Equality Ohio board member Doug Braun. �Even after they were acquitted, men had to pay hundreds of dollars to get their cars back.�

Detroit passed a �nuisance abatement� ordinance in 2001, intended to fight prostitution, which allowed for seizure of property. Overzealous police officers began entrapping gay men and seizing their cars. Even when courts threw out the public indecency charges for lack of evidence, the men still had to pay $960 in towing and storage fees to release the vehicles.

The ACLU and the gay and lesbian Triangle Foundation sued in federal court over the matter, the practice stopped, and the men�s money was refunded.

Though Dann�s proposal is different from Michigan law in its specifics, the potential for the same problem exists.

�What if two adults meet online, then decide to go to the park to meet in person, and they get friendly in one of their cars?� asked the prosecutor, adding that such activity between heterosexuals is seldom a law enforcement concern.

These questions are still unanswered, as they are not enumerated in Dann�s announcement, and are not completely clear in existing Ohio law.

�Depending on what the definitions are,� said the prosecutor, �this could give a lot of discretion to police, and could be used against certain groups.�

The RICO provision should be limited to sex offenses against children, said Braun.

�I don�t know why �any� sex offense is in there,� he said. �It seems that this is about more than just protecting children. If you want to protect children, be specific about children.�

Dann is also proposing to remove the statute of limitation on rape, which the prosecutor called �a can of worms.�

A Senate staffer, who also asked not to be named, candidly said that the bill is an attempt by Dann, who is trailing Republican Betty Montgomery in the attorney general race, to appear tough on sex offenders.

Montgomery has attacked Dann, an attorney, for representing sex offenders in court. In return, Dann accused Montgomery of losing $2 million in federal money by not reconciling the state Megan�s Law for sex offender reporting with the federal one, when she was previously attorney general.

The staffer said that regardless of the election outcome, Dann�s bill is unlikely to pass before the session ends December 31.

However, it is possible that the bill could be picked up next year by a Republican lawmaker, increasing the chance it would pass.

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