Landlords Must Heed California Sex Offender Disclosure Law
Although felony sex crime rates have declined in California in recent years, the growing presence of sex offenders in the community remains a major concern of the public. This concern has prompted the state to take a number of steps to further the arrest and punishment of such offenders, tighten sex offender registration requirements, and notify the public when such offenders are paroled in their neighborhoods. At the same time, there has been a recent trend in California landlord-tenant law to increase owner responsibility to protect tenants from criminal conduct of third parties. The stakes grew even larger for rental property owners and managers in the wake of a statutory disclosure law effective in July of 1999.
Who is Required to Register?
In California, about 78,000 persons are required by state law to register for life as sex offenders (and certain other offenders such as arsonists) with their local police chief or county sheriff because they were convicted of felony or misdemeanor sex-related crimes such as rape, child molestation, sexual assault, indecent exposure, or possession of pornography.
When Must Sex Offenders Register?
Sex offenders are required to register within five working days after release from a local jail or state prison, completion of any alternative sentence, and when they change their name or address. In addition, each sex offender is required to register annually within five working days of their birthday. Sex offenders convicted of felonies who fail to register can be charged with a felony, which may result in a "third strike" conviction.
Since 1996, each convicted sex offender is classified as either a "high-risk" sex offender; "serious" sex offender or "other" sex offender as defined by the Penal Code. Currently more than 64,000 sex offenders are classified as "high risk" or "serious," allowing for public disclosure of specific information. The remaining 13,000 registered sex offenders are classified as "other" and not subject to public disclosure. Each month, approximately 300 sex registrants are released from the Department of Corrections.
California Program for Identifying Offenders
In conformance with a federal statute known as "Megan's Law," state and local law enforcement authorities in California have implemented programs to notify residents when a high-risk offender is present in their neighborhood.
The state distributes CD-ROM computer discs to local law enforcement agencies and operates a "900" telephone hotline to provide the public with information on the community of residence and the zip code of felony sex offenders. The Governor has requested additional funding from the 1999-00 Budget Bill to update the information on a monthly instead of quarterly basis. The state provides detailed information to local law enforcement agencies prior to the release of high-risk sex offenders, and authorizes those agencies to provide specific warnings and information about such offenders to schools and individuals determined to be at risk from their presence in the community.
California has enacted legislation that requires rental property owners and sellers to make certain disclosures to tenants and purchasers regarding the existence of the database that contains the names of registered sex offenders. Since July 1, 1999, the State of California has required the following language be inserted in all residential leases, in not less than eight-point type:
Registered Sex Offenders Notice: The California Department of Justice, sheriff's departments, police departments serving jurisdictions of 200,000 or more and many other law enforcement authorities maintain for public access a data base of locations of persons required to register pursuant to paragraph (1) of subdivision (a) of Section 290.4 of the Penal Code. The database is updated on a quarterly basis and a source of information about the presence of these individuals in any neighborhood. The Department of Justice also maintains a Sex Offender Identification Line through which inquiries about individuals may be made. This is a "900" telephone service. Callers must have specific information about individuals they are checking. Information regarding neighborhoods is not available through the "900" telephone service.
The new law also provides: " . . . Upon delivery of the notice to the lessee or transferee of the real property, the lessor, seller or broker is not required to provide information in addition to that contained in the notice regarding the proximity of registered sex offenders. The information in the notice shall be deemed to be adequate to inform the lessee or transferee about the existence of a statewide database of the locations of registered sex offenders and information from the database regarding those locations. The information in the notice shall not give rise to any cause of action against the disclosing party by a registered sex offender …nothing in this disclosure law alters any existing duty of the lessor, seller, or broker under any other statute or decisional law, including, but not limited to, the duties of a lessor, seller or broker under this article . . ."
Penalties for Denying Housing
At the same time, the mere fact that an individual is listed on the 900 number or the CD-ROM does not appear to allow a rental property owner to deny housing or to evict them based on their status. The penalties for violation of this statute include actual damages, treble damages with a minimum of $250, attorney's fees, exemplary damages or a civil penalty not exceeding $25,000.
Owners are advised to make sure they have updated their leases to conform to this legal requirement. The California Apartment Association and it's local chapters can provide support in the form of background papers, compliant forms and other materials to help you stay informed.
(Helaine Ashton is a partner with Kimball, Tirey, and St. John. The law firm specializes in landlord/tenant law and represents clients throughout California. Any questions regarding the contents of this article should be made by calling (800) 564-6611.)
The above discussion is general in nature and should not be construed as individualized legal advice. Readers are cautioned to seek individualized legal assistance based on a detailed analysis of their particular facts and circumstances. If you have any questions regarding the above material or any other matter involving landlord-tenant issues, you may contact the Law Offices of Kimball, Tirey and St. John, 800-338-6039.