GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Homeless sex offenders can legally stay in overnight shelters even if they are too close to schools, according to a ruling by a federal judge.
The ruling comes nearly three years after homeless sex offender Thomas Pauli froze to death next to a Grand Rapids business after he was turned away from a shelter in sub-zero temperatures.
"Something bad happened, and something good came out of it," said Don Lamse, who discovered Pauli's body in January 2009 outside an old radiator shop on South Division Avenue.
"Somebody shouldn't have to die just because it gets cold and he's not allowed in a place."
U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist issued his ruling Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by five homeless or previously homeless sex offenders and two Grand Rapids shelters: Degage Ministries and Mel Trotter Ministries.
"Mr. Pauli unfortunately had to die in the street and freeze to death to bring this tragedy to light," said Mel Trotter Ministries CEO Rev. Chico Daniels.
The lawsuit was filed against Governor Rick Snyder, State Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Michigan State Police and Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth.
Among the plaintiffs was an unidentified 23-year-old woman with mental and emotional impairments who was convicted of a misdemeanor sex crime when she was 20 and who said she'd been raped and beaten up in the past and was afraid to live on the streets.
"Plaintiffs filed their complaint in response to the death of Thomas Pauli, a homeless man with a prior CSC conviction who froze to death on the street in Grand Rapids," Quist wrote in his 18-page ruling.
Pauli was convicted in 1991 of second-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a child under the age of 13 in Grand Traverse County.
Lamse, a business owner, found his body next to the old A to Z Radiator shop.
"When I found him in the morning, he was crouched down on his hands and knees right here, next to a van," he said.
"Pauli was forced into the freezing cold after an overnight shelter located within 1,000 feet of a school denied him admission because of his status as a registered sex offender," Quist wrote.
In downtown Grand Rapids, 28 of the 142 registered sex offenders list themselves as homeless, according to the Michigan Sex Offender Registry.
But Michigan's sex offender law says offenders cannot "reside" within 1,000 feet of schools.
Both Degage and Mel Trotter are too close to schools; so is Guiding Light Mission, though that shelter was not part of the lawsuit.
"We're in the mission of saving lives," Daniels, of Mel Trotter, said. "We're not interested in sending anyone out to die in the street and so, with great angst and regret, we did in the past have to turn people away."
The judge ruled that the case revolved around the definition of "reside."
The state law does not define the word, so Quist quoted from dictionaries, which defined it as a "permanent" place to stay.
"Under the ordinary meaning of 'reside' a registrant does not violate SORA's (Sex Offender Registry Act) residency restrictions by using an emergency overnight shelter under the following conditions: 1) users are admitted to the shelter in the evening and required to leave in the morning; and (2) users have no expectation of obtaining a place in the shelter on any given night," the judge ruled.
"Therefore, registrants may sleep overnight in homeless shelters or drop-in centers located within 1,000 feet of a school and may spend multiple nights in such shelters" as long as those conditions are met.
On Thursday, homeless advocates said they would open their shelters to sex offenders.
"It just sets a standard and allows people that are in his (Pauli's) same predicament to be able to stay somewhere and not have to worry about what they're going to do at night," said Jessica Manfrin of Guiding Light Mission.
Mission officials say they believe the offenders won't pose a risk, even to nearby schools or child-care programs. The men would stay at night and leave in the morning before school starts, they said.
Catholic Central High School is across the street from Guiding Light Mission. A Catholic Diocese spokesman said the school would "live" with the ruling.
A homeless woman who stays in Degage Ministries' shelter for women applauded the ruling.
"They're people," Dawn Valmassei said of sex offenders. "God made 'em and they deserve to live just like everybody else and be treated like everybody else. There's no kids in Degage or Mel Trotter's anyway that they can touch."
GRAM Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in front of a festive downtown crowd at Rosa Parks Circle Friday night.
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Police say snow is making roads "treacherous" and are urging people to stay home if possible.