Alan Meister made a really bad decision as a teenager. To him it was merely a teenage love affair, but to Oak Park police and the Cook County State's Attorney, it was a felony?#34;Aggravated Criminal Sexual Abuse. Meister, who turned 18 while his then-girlfriend was still not yet 15, was arrested in 1994. In 1996, following two years of court dates, he was convicted and received three years probation. More than 10 years later, Meister thought he was almost done paying for that mistake. Now, in the wake of recent events, he?#34;and his wife and three small children?#34;may have to continue paying for years to come.
For eight and a half years, the Oak Park native has registered annually as a convicted sex offender with the local police department wherever he's lived. By all accounts he's stayed out of trouble since his conviction, with no contact with Oak Park police except for his annual registrations. Three times during that period, he's moved out of his parents' home on the 1150 block of South Highland Avenue, and three times he's moved back in, primarily because his felony sex offender status has excluded him from consideration for a number of better-paying jobs.
"He's been denied several jobs because of this," said his wife, Therese, whom he met in 1998, and with whom he had three children, Alan III, 6; Faith, 4; and Andrew, 1. The family's latest return, in November, 2004, came after the Meisters lost their house in Waterford Township, Mich. That, said Therese, was the result of Alan being unable to secure adequate employment.
Since they first met, Alan and Therese have talked about the day he'd be free of the web of restrictions binding his prospects, and no longer have to register annually or check the box on employment applications that ask if he's been convicted of a felony in the past 10 years. They eagerly awaited an end to background checks that have precluded him from even coaching his oldest son's T-ball team.
"He's been looking forward to the end of the 10 years," said Therese.
That day may now be deferred once again, due in part to a difference of opinion between the Oak Park Police Department and County Sheriff, as well as to some carelessness on the part of Meister himself. On Jan. 24, Meister was arrested by Cook County Sheriff's police as part of a county-wide sweep of sex offenders either living within 500 feet of a school, park or day care center, or who failed to register as required. Meister was found in violation of both rules.
According to the Cook County Sheriff, Meister currently lives 460 feet from the Sunny Day Learning Center at 6227 W. Roosevelt in Berwyn.
As a result, the Meisters face eviction from their home.
Oak Park Deputy Police Chief Robert Scianna said his department had the village's engineering department draw a 500-foot circle around Meister's residence to determine whether it complied with all the safety zone requirements. And by that standard, he did. However, County Sheriff spokesman Bill Cunningham said Friday that sheriff's deputies measure distances "from property line to property line." Under those standards, he said, Meister was inside the safety zone.
"He was born in this house. This is where his parents live," said Therese, unable to understand how he can be forced to leave.
But Cunningham noted the law allows only one exception, saying "The only exception is if an offender purchased the house prior to July, 2000."
Running afoul of technicalities
The $1,000 cash bail it cost Meister to secure his release from County Jail on Jan. 25 is likely just the beginning of his problems. Because he was able to raise that $1,000 bail, he is not eligible for a Public Defender, and so must assume the cost of his own legal defense. Therese Meister said Friday she doesn't know where they'll get thousands of dollars for an attorney, but the stakes are too high not to do so. In the wake of his arrest, Alan Meister said he received a letter from the Cook County State's Attorney saying that if he is found guilty of either failing to register or living within 500 feet of the Day Care Center, the requirement that he register annually will be extended another 10 years.
He could also be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
"Technically, he broke the law, and he knows that," said Therese Meister, speaking of her husband's initial offense last Friday as she sat in the small living room of their home. Her husband, she said, understands he must bear a certain stigma for a while longer. She doesn't understand, however, how the state can group her husband in with sexual predators and others who are truly dangerous.
"He's treated no differently than people who have hurt children," she said. "There's no rating of the offenses; there are no distinctions made."
An honest mistake?
Meister had always re-registered every May. But when the family moved back to Oak Park last November, Meister forgot to stop in at the police station. It was, he insists, an honest mistake.
However, Scianna, who had expressed qualified sympathy regarding Meister's proximity to the day care center, flatly disagreed with Meister's assessment of his failure to re-register upon returning. Oak Park police, he said, had made repeated attempts to contact Meister about being non-compliant since he got back in November.
"He's registered at least eight times," said Scianna. "And each time he's read a sheet listing all the restrictions, and has to initial it."
A faxed copy of the Illinois State Sexual Offender's Registration Form spells out those restrictions. The first point to be initialized states that failure to comply with any provision of the act is a Class 4 felony, and says that the term of registration can be administratively extended by 10 years for that failure. The third point reads, "You must, within 10 days of changing your address, report your new address, in writing, with the law enforcement agency with whom you last registered" and that "you must, within 10 days of changing your address, register in person with the police department ... having jurisdiction at your new address."
"It really is intrusive on somebody's liberties, but there's a reason that's so," said Scianna. "I'd rather err on the side of safety."
Therese Meister, however, said her husband is a threat to no one, has paid his debt and should be allowed to get on with his life. Alan Meister, she said, is a hard-working man and a good husband and father, an opinion that is eagerly shared by several of the Meisters' neighbors on the block.
Local police and sheriff's officials say their hands are tied.
"Other people make the law," said Scianna. "My job is to enforce it."
"Ultimately, it's up to the judge," said Cunningham.
Now Alan Meister can only hope the judge he stands before at his next court date?#34;Feb. 18 at 9 a.m. at the Maybrook Courthouse?#34;takes more than his recent mistake into account.
"If we do have to move, I don't know where it will be to," said Therese Meister.