A federal judge issued a narrow ruling Monday morning that temporarily blocks the state of Georgia from preventing a handful of sex offenders from living near school bus stops.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper’s ruling applies only to eight plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights. But the plaintiffs’ lawyers were encouraged by his decision. They said the law would make it nearly impossible for Georgia’s registered sex offenders to live in urban and suburban areas.

The law, which is scheduled to go into effect Saturday, prohibits registered sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather. That includes schools, churches, parks, gyms, swimming pools or one of the state’s 150,000 school bus stops.

“The intent is good, but in reality it’s more than any agency can handle (as far as enforcement),” said Maj. John Gibson with the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office.

Whitfield County has 126 registered sex offenders. Murray County has 73.

“We annually check on them anyway,” said Ray Sitton, chief deputy with the Murray County Sheriff’s Office. “We are getting with the school system to find out where the bus stops are.”

The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit last week seeking to halt the law, arguing that restricting offenders from living within 1,000 feet of the school bus stops would render vast residential areas off-limits.

State attorney Joseph Drolet argued that the law was needed to keep children safe from sex offenders — “ticking time bombs,” he said, that could erupt at any moment.

“Is it inconvenient? Certainly,” said Drolet. “But it’s a valid registration and recognition of something that’s been recognized: Sex offenders get out of prison and re-offend.”

After the bill was signed into law in April, thousands of offenders received letters notifying them that they will have to move. Officials in Whitfield and Murray counties did not send out letters.

Under the law, entire counties could be off-limits for offenders. In Georgia’s DeKalb County, all 490 sex offenders would likely have to move out of the county. And all but three of the sex offenders in central Georgia’s Bibb County would have to move to avoid the buffer zones surrounding the county’s 4,700 school bus stops, the lawsuit says.

Sarah Geraghty, a staff attorney for the center, said after the hearing that Georgia police should think twice before trying to enforce the statute.

“It would be inappropriate for sheriffs across the state to throw people out of their homes on July 1,” she said.

In a brief ruling that he read aloud, Cooper said the court appreciates the need to protect the public from sex offenders, but not “in a manner that offends the Constitution.”

A more extensive written order is expected today, Cooper said when reached by telephone.

Lawyers for both sides will be back in court July 11, armed with evidence on the number of school bus stops in the state and more details of the law’s potential impact on offenders.

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