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Florida’s Sex Offender Registry Proves Inescapable

Critics say the state’s policy of keeping non-residents registered bloats the list—and harms public safety.

Filing cabinet with a slightly open drawer full of files
Photo illustration by Anagraph

It was the kind of headline guaranteed to generate clicks even over the winter holidays and amid a federal government shutdown: “Number of Sex Offenders Living in Florida Is Growing,” warned the Associated Press. In December, the Florida legislative auditor’s office released a report noting that the number of people on the state’s sex offender registry had expanded 53 percent since 2005, to about 73,000.

But the report also contains this detail: 60 percent of those on the list live out of state, are in prison, or have been deported—up from the 43 percent in those categories in the auditors’ first report in 2006.

That’s because Florida’s registry increasingly scoops up anyone who has ever lived there or visited. Under state law, anyone with a sex crime in their past who comes to Florida for three days or more—say, a long weekend at Disney World or a business conference—has to visit a sheriff’s office to get fingerprinted and photographed and turn over myriad other details. The state then publishes those and keeps these new registrants on its public list for a minimum of 25 years.

Not only does that artificially inflate Florida’s list, critics say—it makes it impossible for those who have served a sentence and moved away to start over, even when their new home jurisdictions don’t require them to be publicly listed.

Take Chris, a former Florida resident who doesn’t want his full name used because he hopes to protect his family and business from further harm. Twenty years ago he was convicted of engaging in a sexual chat with an underage girl online. He says he never had physical contact with the girl, and after serving five years of probation, his offenses were classified as “adjudication withheld,” a ruling in which a defendant avoids a guilty verdict if he or she completes probation.  

But under Florida law, a withheld adjudication is considered a conviction for purposes of the registry. So that year his name was added. After he lost a job because someone at work searched for his name online, he said he’d had enough of the state and in 2004 he and his wife moved to Nevada, where state law doesn’t require him to register. There he got a good job selling point-of-sale systems that help businesses run their cash registers, credit card readers, and the like. He had been with his company for eight years when in 2013 a larger firm bought the business. In the background check, the new company found his name on Florida’s list and fired him.

How are you protecting people from a so-called danger that doesn’t even have any jurisdictional tie to the state?

Ann Fitz defense attorney

So Chris started his own business selling similar systems to bars and nightclubs. But if potential customers do a background check, they find him on Florida’s site, which he thinks has hurt his sales. He has been married 16 years and says that his wife, a schoolteacher, “thinks about [his listing in Florida] constantly—she has a lot of emotional trauma and stress” and is in counseling.

The ostensible purpose of Florida’s registration law is to protect its residents, says Ann Fitz, a defense attorney who’s suing the state in federal court over the policy on behalf of a client who lives in North Carolina but is listed only in Florida. “How are you protecting people from a so-called danger that doesn’t even have any jurisdictional tie to the state?” she asked. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

A bigger registry may help the state pull in federal funds. In fiscal year 2018, Florida, like 20 other states, was awarded money through a U.S. Department of Justice grant program that helps pay for upgrades to registries under the 2006 Adam Walsh Act. Its grant for fiscal year 2018 was about $399,000, and altogether the state has received about $2.4 million since 2008 for registry improvements.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s application for that money, which The Appeal obtained through a public-records request, uses the size of the registry to sell the state as a leader in punitiveness. In one section, the agency touts the more than 700 percent growth in the number of people on its registry since its inception in 1997 and its continuing expansion. “Florida currently has one of the largest registries in the country and enjoys national recognition as a leader and model in the strength of sexual predator and offender laws,” the agency notes.  

A larger list also inflates the agency’s performance data, which it’s required to report as a condition of that grant. One key measure is the percentage of offenders in compliance with the state’s registry requirements, under which offenders must visit their local sheriff’s department in person two to four times a year to re-register. The law enforcement department’s progress report for January to June 2018, which The Appeal also obtained under a records request, states that almost 99 percent of registrants—between 71,500 and 72,500—are complying with those requirements.

But it’s impossible for the almost 44,000 registrants living out of state or imprisoned or deported to comply. Without them, the real number is just over 40 percent.

We follow all state and federal laws and have nothing further to offer.

spokesperson Florida Department of Law Enforcement

Asked why people who don’t live in Florida communities are listed as “compliant,” the Department of Law Enforcement cites the need for “consistency in reporting” to “various state and national systems.” The department notes an “ongoing fluidity in the situational status and locations of individual registrants” and identifies “this constant flux coupled with the broad understandings and requirements of the term ‘compliance’” as the reason for the practice. In other words, it’s challenging to keep tabs on a group of people whose living circumstances change often, so it’s easier to classify those who can’t register in person as “compliant.”

The DOJ’s award letter granting the money notes that “any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement to the federal government related to this award … may be the subject of a criminal prosecution.” Asked about whether its practice runs afoul of this warning—and whether the agency has received approval from the DOJ to report its statistics this way—a spokesperson for the state law enforcement department replied by email, “We follow all state and federal laws and have nothing further to offer.”

Whatever the state’s motives, an inflated registry is most likely rife with errors. For example, Florida’s registry shows Fitz’s client as living in a county in California that he moved away from 15 years ago, she said. And the breadth of the list may hurt public safety.

In a 2012 study, a team of researchers concluded that “an overly inclusive public registry may produce an overload of information that makes it difficult for concerned members of the public to distinguish truly dangerous [registrants] from those who present less public safety risk.”

Even without the artificial ballooning of these lists, there’s little evidence that they protect people.

Asked about that finding, the law enforcement department said, in part, that “citizens have the ability to narrow their focus to those registrants within their community and, further, to those individuals with whom they interact or are considering interaction.”

Even without the artificial ballooning of these lists, there’s little evidence that they protect people. A summary of existing research on registration and notification laws on behalf of the DOJ, updated in March 2017, concludes that research on the effectiveness of such laws “remains relatively limited and findings from the studies are somewhat inconclusive.”

Back in Las Vegas, Chris doesn’t go to his wife’s school events because they are afraid it would impact her job. They are thinking of having a baby but are concerned about the collateral effects on a child of having a parent who’s publicly listed—no imaginary fear given data and stories on registrants’ children being harassed and bullied. They would like to travel but have been told that Chris’s presence on Florida’s list means that if he tries, language will be added to his passport noting his sex offense conviction, and he’ll be barred from entry to many countries.

They left Florida 15 years ago. But Florida won’t leave them alone.