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Missouri law restricts sex offenders on Halloween. Now a Hazelwood man is suing

 A frame from a Hazelwood police officer's bodycam showing the Halloween display of Thomas Sanderson on October 31, 2022. The image was introduced as evidence in a filing by the Missouri Attorney General's Office.
Missouri Attorney General
A frame from a Hazelwood police officer's bodycam showing the Halloween display of Thomas Sanderson on October 31, 2022. The image was introduced as evidence in a filing by the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

Sex offenders in Missouri must post a sign on Halloween that says “no candy or treats at this residence.”

A new lawsuit is challenging a Missouri law that bars those on the state’s sex offender registry from participating in Halloween activities involving children.

The law, which took effect in 2008, also requires offenders to turn off exterior lighting on their homes and post a sign that says “no candy or treats at this residence” after 5 p.m. on Halloween.

Attorney Connie McFarland-Butler observed that the success of the lawsuit may pivot on more than just the question of a sex offender’s right to free expression.

She noted that the Hazelwood man who filed the legal challenge, Thomas Sanderson, 58, consulted with his local police department before staging a lavish Halloween display outside his home. Sanderson was convicted in 2006 of statutory sodomy involving a 16-year-old girl. Last year, Hazelwood police arrested him after receiving reports that he had decorated his home and was handing out candy to kids.

“Although I'm not sympathetic to what he was previously convicted of, he did reach out and seek out advice," McFarland-Butler said. “He was misled.”

That might not sway a judge when it comes to overturning the law.

“They don't want a case in which the sign comes down, and it turns out that the sex offender is actually setting the whole thing up to offend again and does so,” cautioned attorney Bevis Schock. “I think [a court] could easily make him put that sign up, because they're going to say, ‘The harm is so great. And it's directly related to the problem: kids coming over.’”

But from a constitutional standpoint, there is no question for attorney Sarah Swatosh: The law clearly steps on the First Amendment rights of those on the sex offender registry.

"The constitutional right to free speech implies the corollary: the right to be free from speech, whatever that speech may be,” Swatosh said. “The government doesn't get to force you. They cannot compel any speech.”

That lawsuit was among multiple subjects taken up on the latest edition of the St. Louis on the Air’s Legal Roundtable. The attorneys also discussed a copyright infringement suit filed against St. Louis-based Mission Taco Joint by the Mission brand of tortillas, a controversial $50,000 campaign donation to Attorney General Andrew Bailey and the latest news coming from the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office.

To hear analyses of those cases — and more — from the Legal Roundtable, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Danny Wicentowski