A patchwork approach to the nation’s sex offense registry laws is leaving many of the 900,000 people on the country’s registries with a stark choice as COVID-19 sweeps the country: risk their lives or risk their freedom.
This week, a California man had to decide between putting his and his 65-year-old parents’ health at risk or potentially going to prison. Another is already in violation of his state’s law because he spent more than three days in the hospital with his pregnant spouse without first appearing at his local police department to report that he would be away from home. If he had left the hospital to try to report, he wouldn’t have been allowed to return because of the risk of spreading coronavirus. In Rochester, New York, a man on a registry called his local police department to tell them he had symptoms of COVID-19. He was told to report in person anyway.
While many of the country’s law enforcement agencies are finding ways to modify how they administer their sex offense registry laws, others are defying public health directives by forcing people to crowd into police stations in close contact with each other, members of the public, and law enforcement officials.
In California, the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws filed lawsuits last week against five jurisdictions that continue to require people with sex offense convictions to register and report in person. In a filing against the San Diego Police Department, the group argued that jurisdictions are in effect forcing sex offender registrants to “play Russian Roulette” with their lives. Governor Gavin Newsom’s office issued a statewide “stay at home” order on March 19, but many law enforcement agencies continued to require in-person registration. However, some jurisdictions have acted on their own and have taken measures to comply with COVID-19 warnings by moving to online or telephone reporting.
“The city of Los Angeles has said, ‘No, we don’t want you to register in person. In fact, we won’t even allow you to register in person.’ So instead, you call a phone number,” said Janice Bellucci, executive director of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws and the attorney behind the California lawsuits. Bellucci filed a sixth suit on Wednesday seeking to get the California Supreme Court to ban in-person registration and reporting statewide.
A survey by The Appeal of actions being taken by states and agencies across the country found what Mary Sue Molnar, an advocate for reform of Texas’s registry laws, called a “patchwork of registering requirements” that, in many cases, are leaving people with past sex offense convictions in a dangerous legal limbo.
The Oregon State Police have suspended in-person registrations and now require phone registration. In Texas, according to Molnar, executive director of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, “there is no statewide policy regarding in-person registration and individual registering offices are conducting registration as they see fit.” Some law enforcement agencies are moving to phone or email reporting while others are still requiring registrants to appear in person.
Per its website, Douglas County, Nebraska, still required people to report in person as of March 27, while in Washington State, Snohomish County was suspending “services” to people on the registry until April 6. Sioux City, Iowa, Jackson County, Missouri, and the Virginia State Police were also telling registrants and would-be registrants to get in touch by phone or online. Defense attorneys in St. Louis and Pittsburgh told The Appeal that both St. Louis and the Pennsylvania State Police have suspended in-person reporting.
California, on the other hand, requires homeless individuals on the registry to show up in person every 90 days, according to Bellucci. New York also still requires some people on its registry to report in person every 90 days. Janine Kava, a spokesperson for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, told The Appeal, “State law requires all Level 3 offenders and offenders designated as sexual predators to report to their local law enforcement agencies every 90 days to verify their addresses.”
New York attorney Jill Sanders called the continued in-person reporting requirement “very concerning,” both for those living in New York City and in more rural communities. “Forcing registrants to take buses or subways to get to downtown Manhattan may increase their risk of contracting COVID-19,” she told The Appeal late last week. “I received an email from someone in Rochester trying to figure out what to do. His 90-day verification date is coming up, but he has symptoms of COVID-19. He was unable to get tested at a mobile testing site to confirm the diagnosis.”
Rochester officials later informed Sanders that regardless of his symptoms, her client would still be required to report in person. “If sex offender registration is meant to be for public safety, having a possibly ill person report in person flies in the face of that goal,” she said.
Bellucci told The Appeal that she had recently spoken with a 40-year-old man on California’s registry who lives with his elderly parents, both of whom are at greater risk from coronavirus. He had been advised that he would be required to report to his local police station in person regardless of the risk to his family.
“The fact is, when a registrant goes in, whatever they contract, they’re taking that back to where they live,” Bellucci said. “And so many people on the registry live with another person.”
In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order doesn’t protect either the 40,000 people on the state’s sex offense registry or the law enforcement officers who keep track of them. According to a March 25 email to The Appeal from Michigan State Police spokesperson Shanon Banner, “The current situation with COVID-19 has not changed any of the existing statutory requirements for registered sex offenders.”
One Michigan registrant who asked to remain anonymous said his local police department has moved to telephone reporting. However, he said, under Michigan law, people who don’t report in person may be at risk of being charged with a misdemeanor and facing two years in prison even if they’re unable to obey the law.
Regarding the conflicting choices facing sex offender registrants, Deputy Press Secretary Bobby Leddy said in a March 26 email that “we are aware of the issue, and looking into solutions on many matters to ensure that residents can reduce their exposure to the coronavirus and mitigate the spread of this virus.”
The situation is similar in Florida. A spokesperson for the Florida Action Committee, which advocates for changes to the state’s registry laws, said his organization is getting “dozens of calls a day” from registrants who are both confused and afraid of being penalized because of a situation far outside their control.
“Failure to register is a felony carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of six months on a GPS monitor,” the spokesperson said. “There are no exceptions for states of emergency.”
The spokesperson, who is on Florida’s registry and asked not to be named for this article, explained that some local Florida law enforcement agencies are still requiring in-person reporting while Jackson County had suspended reporting until April 6 and Escambia County is allowing registration by phone. “Notably,” he added, “both accommodations violate the law and subject the registrant to a felony.”
Under Florida law, any person on the registry who is arrested for any reason is automatically required to stay on the registry for life, even if the subsequent arrest is thrown out of court.
In addition to the lawsuits filed in California by Bellucci, other activists are attempting to protect both people on sex offender registries and the public health.
Jeanne Baker, a member of the board of the ACLU of Florida, told The Appeal that she has talked with a member of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which administers the state’s sex offender registry. “This official indicated there had been put together a working group to look at the whole set of statutory provisions in Florida that probably should be suspended for the emergency should the governor issue an executive order doing that,” she said.
Last Friday, organizations including the Florida Action Committee and the ACLU of Florida issued a statement asking Governor Ron DeSantis to temporarily suspend the in-person reporting requirement. Instead, there has been “zero response or acknowledgement,” of the statement, according to the Florida Action Committee spokesperson. DeSantis’s office had not replied to a request for comment as of Friday morning.
On the national front, the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, issued a statement last Saturday listing seven policy recommendations to protect the health of registrants, law enforcement agencies, and the general public. At the top of the list was the elimination of in-person registration and reporting.
Bellucci said that law enforcement agencies that continue to require people to report or register in person are coercing registrants into becoming “a whole troupe of Typhoid Marys, people who are going to be getting infected with COVID-19 because they registered in person. And then they’re going to carry it back to whoever they live with. And to the community as well.”