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City passes law restricting where dangerous sexual offenders can live

Level 3 sex offenders will find fewer places to live in Cloquet now.

Cloquet City Councilors and Mayor Bruce Ahlgren unanimously passed a city ordinance Tuesday that limits where Level 3 sex offenders — the category of predatory offenders determined at highest risk of reoffending by the state and therefore the most dangerous — can reside.

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The ordinance prohibits Level 3 sex offenders from residing on a temporary or permanent basis within 1,000 feet of the following:

  •  School;
  •  Licensed child care center;
  •  Public park or playground; and
  •  The permanent or temporary residence of any other designated predatory offender.

The ordinance does not apply under the following exceptions:

  •  If the sex offender is a minor or was a minor when he or she committed the offense and was not convicted as an adult;
  •  The designated offender established the residence prior to Feb. 3, 2014 (when the ordinance was passed) or the school, child care center or park was established after the offender established his or her residence;
  •  The residence is also the primary residence of the offender’s parents, grandparents, siblings or spouse, and was their residence prior to Feb. 3;
  •  The residence is a property owned or rented by and licensed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections prior to Feb. 3.

Currently there are no Level 3 sex offenders living in Cloquet — a total of two are registered in Carlton County — since the arrest of Joseph John Couture, a registered Level 3 sex offender who pleaded guilty last July to murdering Trina Langenbrunner in 2000.

Under the terms of the new residency restrictions, Couture would not have been allowed to reside at the home he occupied on the 300 block of Second Street in Cloquet prior to his arrest for Langenbrunner’s murder because the home was close to both a public park and the Cloquet Middle School. (Released from prison in 2011, Couture had been found guilty in 2007 of engaging in sexual abuse with an 8-year-old female victim who was known to him, which included penetration.)

The code change was not prompted by Couture’s case, however. Rather, it was a call to the police department that led to the change.

Deputy Police Chief Terry Hill explained that a person with Second Chance Ministries in Duluth had called and stated that he was interested in operating or owning a home within Cloquet that could house Level 3 predatory offenders who were released from prison, to reintegrate them into society. The caller wanted to know if Cloquet had any ordinances that would prevent this type of home. It did not, but it does now.

Hill said the new law was a collaborative effort between the police department, city attorney’s office, planning and zoning and city administration.

“Our concern was that they could locate a home — that wasn’t regulated — where multiple predatory offenders could live together,” Hill said. “And he talked about bringing in offenders not only from Minnesota, but also from out of state.”

Not everyone in the Council Chambers liked the new ordinance.

Kay Arola, executive director of Arrowhead Regional Corrections, addressed the Council and Mayor. Explaining that ARC provides all probation and parole supervision to Cloquet and Carlton County, she noted that the priorities of ARC are the same as the Council’s and the police departments: to ensure that people are safe and that sex offenders don’t re-offend.

“I’m here to offer a Corrections perspective and explain the collateral consequences we anticipate [if the ordinance is passed],” she said. “I don’t believe that restricting proximity to schools and daycare facilities makes people safer. But it does create barriers that makes supervising offenders more difficult.

Arola cited a DOC-commissioned study that examined 224 Level 3 sex offenders who were released from prison, reoffended and were sent back to prison. As part of the study, officials looked at whether a residence restriction would have prevented the crime.

“In 16 years, no re-offense occurred where the contact was made at a school, daycare or park in Minnesota,” she said. “Most occurred between one mile and 20 miles from where they lived … What correlates is social or relationship proximity. Most of the offenders are men, they found a woman with kids and use a relationship with her to gain access to the children.”

Arola warned that residency restrictions can make offenders lie about where they live or less likely to register. Worst case, they go underground, quit all contact and programming, and disappear.

City Attorney Bill Helwig told city officials that the ordinance was modeled after similar laws recently passed in Duluth, Brainerd and Proctor. All three of those cities regulate where the Level 3 sex offender can live. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa also have a law regarding sex offenders, Helwig explained; however, the Band’s law regulates where such offenders can go, prohibiting them from being in child care centers, schools and parks.

Fond du Lac’s is a better model, Arola said after the meeting.

“It makes more sense, if you restrict where they can be rather than where they sleep at night,” she said. “It’s a more effective model.”

Councilors asked several questions of the city attorney and police.

Councilor Kerry Kolodge wanted to know who would be responsible for updating the map showing all of the city’s licensed child care centers. City Planning and Zoning Director Al Cottingham said he would do it once a year.

In response to Councilor Roger Maki’s request for police input, Hill stressed his concern that the previously mentioned group home for sex offenders was still looking at Cloquet, and any residences that were established before the ordinance was passed would be exempt from the new law.

Councilor David Bjerkness wondered why the city didn’t ban Level 3 offenders from living anywhere in the city or at least increase the yards away from 1,000 to 1,500 or 2,000 like Duluth and Hermantown.

Helwig explained that cities can enact restrictions, but if those are too severe, it can be difficult to defend in a court of law.

“While there may not be evidence that [restricting residence locations] helps, what it offers is a real sense of comfort to the community,” Bjerkness said.

In other matters Tuesday, the Council and Mayor took action on the following:

  •  Accepted a housing study of current and future housing stock and trends in Cloquet and Scanlon, compiled by Stantec Consulting Ltd. (Look for a story on the study in next week’s Pine Journal.)
  •  Approved the appointment of Marla Ahlgren to the Cloquet Library Board. (Mayor Ahlgren abstained from the vote — which was otherwise unanimous — on his wife’s appointment.)
  •  Approved sand and gravel excavation permit renewals for 2014 for Abrahamson Construction, Carlton County Highway Department, Ulland Brothers and Zack Sand and Gravel. No changes were proposed by any of the operators for their operations.
  •  Passed a resolution of support for the MOVE MN Campaign, which has a goal of addressing the state’s $50 billion transportation gap, for everything from roads and bridges, to transit, bike and pedestrian systems throughout the state.