Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

When Handing Out Candy To Trick-or-Treaters Means Risking Arrest

Lawyer seeks end to Halloween restrictions that target people convicted of sex offenses.

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

When Handing Out Candy To Trick-or-Treaters Means Risking Arrest

Lawyer seeks end to Halloween restrictions that target people convicted of sex offenses.


Before the police apprehended Steve, he tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists, he told The Appeal. Then 20 years old, he had attempted to sexually assault a 12-year-old girl in California.

“I couldn’t believe I had done that,” said Steve, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “I felt I couldn’t live with myself.”

He spent three years in prison, and after he was released, stayed in California. He married, had two children, and found a career. “I made a decision that I’m going to try to be the best person I can be the rest of my life,” said Steve, who is now in his 50s.

But as a sex offender registrant, his past was never far behind him. In July 2012, Steve’s wife was reading the local paper and saw that people on the sex offender registry in Simi Valley, California, where they lived, would have to post “No Candy” signs on their homes on Halloween to, theoretically, limit their contact with children.

Registrants can be subjected to a range of restrictions, depending on the state, county, or city. They can, among other things, be banned from entering parks or their child’s school, or from living within a certain distance of a school or daycare center; registrants are often required to have their photos and addresses available in online databases.  

If this protected children, I would be the first one to say yes and to think they were a positive asset to our society, but they're not.Janice M. Bellucci, Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws

Steve spoke out against the Halloween requirement at a City Council meeting where he met attorney Janice M. Bellucci, executive director of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws. She was drawn to this work after learning that someone she had known for years was on the registry. In Oct. 2012, she successfully challenged the sign requirement on behalf of Steve and several other people.

“The work she did wasn’t really for me. It was for my family,” said Steve, who likened the “No Candy” sign to putting a bullseye on his door. “It affects people who have done nothing.”

Bellucci is now hoping for a similar victory. Today, she plans to file suit against Calimesa, California, challenging its Halloween ordinance as well.

“The [Halloween ordinances] punish people on the registry and they do not increase public safety,” Bellucci told The Appeal. “If this protected children, I would be the first one to say yes and to think they were a positive asset to our society, but they’re not.”

Calimesa, a small city in Riverside County, forbids registrants, between the hours of 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 31, from decorating their home with Halloween decorations; mandates they leave all exterior or decorative lighting off from 4 to 11:59 p.m.; and forbids them from answering the door to trick-or-treaters.

In August, Bellucci sent letters to five California cities, including Calimesa, urging them to repeal their Halloween restrictions by Sept. 28 or face litigation. So far, Temecula has repealed its ordinance, and Lancaster is taking steps to do the same.

Halloween regulations typically come in two forms: They apply to people on parole or probation for sex offenses, or they apply to people on the registry, like Steve, who are no longer serving a sentence of parole or probation.

The state of Missouri has a rule similar to the one that Bellucci fought in Simi Valley, requiring registrants on Halloween to post a sign at their home stating, “No candy or treats at this residence.”

“We have a responsibility to children,” Deputy Raashid Brown, public information officer with the Jackson County, Missouri, sheriff’s office told The Appeal. “We are preventing individuals from being victimized.”

However, Brown noted, “People do make mistakes and people do change.”

“It is possible and plausible that some of these individuals may have gotten in a bad situation, but our job is to ensure that people aren’t victimized again,” Brown said.

California and New York limit the activities of people on Halloween who are serving parole for sex offenses.

The California-based Operation Boo, which marks its 25th anniversary this year and is run by the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, mandates that registrants who are on parole must remain indoors from 5 to 10 p.m. during which time they can open the door only to respond to law enforcement. They must turn off all exterior lights, and “no offering of Halloween candy and no Halloween decorations are allowed.” Homeless parolees are required to spend the curfew hours in transient sex-offender curfew centers.

In New York, under a similar program called Operation Halloween, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) requires that the roughly 3,000 parolees convicted of sex crimes remain indoors at home on Halloween, starting in the early afternoon or at the end of their work day until 6 the next morning, according to a DOCCS spokesperson. The DOCCS website states parolees are not allowed to have Halloween candy in their possession, but the spokesperson told The Appeal in an email, “Possessing candy is not a violation of parole.”

“Parents should feel comfortable allowing their children to participate in Halloween festivities without worrying about their safety, and that is why the Department continues its commitment to this special operation year after year,” the spokesperson wrote.

But many experts see the programs as misguided. Operation Halloween perpetrates a “false narrative around sex offenders,” said Christina Swarns, attorney-in-charge at New York’s Office of the Appellate Defender. “People think most people who are sexually abused are abused by strangers, but that’s not the case.” More than 90 percent of juvenile victims of sex crimes know the person who caused harm.

All of these restrictions when viewed in isolation may not seem that bad. When viewed in conjunction with all the other laws that are out there, it's death by a thousand legislative cuts.Guy Hamilton-Smith, Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center, Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Another myth that underpins these requirements, advocates say, is that people who commit sex crimes are likely to reoffend. Just over 5 percent of people convicted of sex crimes are arrested for another sex crime within three years of their release from prison, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The only offense with a lower recidivism rate is murder.

“People believe that people [on the registry] all share a common, unchangeable psychological failing that causes them to commit offense after offense after offense,” said Guy Hamilton-Smith, a legal fellow with the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “What numerous studies show is that’s just not the case.”

Research also indicates there is no increased danger of child sexual abuse on Halloween. In a study that examined more than 65,000 non-familial sex crimes against children from 1997 through 2005, the report’s authors found there was “no significant increase in risk for non-familial child sexual abuse on or just prior to Halloween.” Sex crimes against children by non-family members accounted for two out of every 1,000 Halloween crimes. However, the authors noted, children were at greater risk on Halloween of being hit by a car.

The Halloween restrictions are emblematic of the myriad ways that registrants are banished from participating in everyday life, said Hamilton-Smith.

“All of these restrictions when viewed in isolation may not seem that bad,” he explained. “When viewed in conjunction with all the other laws that are out there, it’s death by a thousand legislative cuts. It’s not the Halloween law that kills you.”

The maze of requirements imposed on registrants’ lives—from where they can live to what decorations they can put on their homes—prevent them from forming the very community connections that are essential for rehabilitation and reintegration, advocates say.

And this, according to Steve, is the real motivation behind the Halloween ordinances and the registry as a whole: to tell registrants “they are not welcome in their community because of what they did, not because of who they are.”

“It’s not that you were an offender or did something,” Steve told The Appeal. “It’s that you are an offender and you’re an active threat.”