The state Supreme Court has denied the appeal of a sex offender who wanted to worship with a Manchester congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses after he was released from prison in 2008.
In an opinion issued yesterday, the justices rejected 36-year-old Jonathan Perfetto's argument that the conditions of his suspended prison sentences - which require he have no contact with minors under age 17 - had violated his right to religious freedom.
"The defendant's freedom of belief has not been restricted," the justices wrote. "He may still practice his religion in ways that do not violate the condition of his sentences," including the use of books and video and audio recordings.
Perfetto could also participate in Bible study sessions or meet with congregation elders when children weren't present, the justices said.
And the justices agreed with the state that restrictions prohibiting Perfetto's contact with minors were justified if they were reasonable to his rehabilitation and to protecting public safety - rather than the least restrictive conditions possible, as Perfetto had argued.
In Perfetto's case, the restrictions were reasonable, the justices said. Perfetto pleaded guilty in 2002 to 61 counts of possessing child pornography, and "prohibiting him from having contact with children provides protection to the class of individuals exploited by him and furthers his rehabilitation by limiting the circumstances which could lead to his reoffending," the justices wrote.
The appeal marked the first time the court had considered whether restrictions barring a sex offender from attending religious meetings where children are present violated that person's constitutional rights to freedom of religion. Barbara Keshen, the staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union who handled Perfetto's appeal, said she wasn't sure what the court's opinion would mean for sex offenders or others on probation.
"The good news about the decision is that the court did find Jonathan was asserting a fundamental right," Keshen said yesterday.
But Keshen said the opinion didn't clearly address whether sex offenders arguing that their constitutional rights had been violated were entitled to have a judge hear those arguments in court.
Perfetto, representing himself, had asked a Hillsborough County judge last year to let him attend meetings of a Manchester congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. He said he would be under the watch of one of the congregation's elders, who had agreed to serve as his chaperone.
But the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office argued that it was unlikely Perfetto would be constantly supervised at the congregation's meetings, and a judge denied Perfetto's request without a hearing.
In addressing Perfetto's argument that his due process rights had been violated because the court never heard testimony about the number of minors in the congregation or Perfetto's chances of reoffending, the justices said Perfetto never raised those arguments in his original motion.
"While the defendant may now point to issues that could have been explored at a hearing, we do not conclude that under these circumstances, due process required a hearing," the justices wrote.
Keshen said she doesn't think she has basis to file a motion to reconsider.
Perfetto, who attracted attention when he lived in a Concord parking garage after finishing a seven-year prison sentence in October 2008, is currently finishing a year-long sentence in the Hillsborough County jail after making a false complaint about his cellmate. He previously served time for molesting a young male relative and for assaulting adult women.
The sentence he received in 2002 for the child pornography convictions included four consecutive 3½- to 7-year sentences, which were suspended under certain conditions, one of which was that Perfetto have no contact with children under 17.
He also isn't allowed to own or access a computer, Keshen said.