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Limits on Sex Offenders Spread in Florida

Times Staff Writer

For now, it’s a case in Idaho that has seized the nation’s attention, reviving outrage, anger and debate over the treatment of sex offenders. But in Florida, which has been rocked by the lurid kidnap-slayings of two young girls, the issue has been on people’s minds much of the year.

A number of Florida cities and towns have recently been adopting laws that require people convicted of sex crimes against minors to reside at least 2,500 feet -- slightly less than half a mile -- from schools, school bus stops, day-care centers, parks, playgrounds or other places where youngsters congregate.

“We see these sexual predators living close to our children as as much a risk to public safety as a building falling down or a firetrap,” Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer said.

In some municipalities, that includes just about everywhere, which some argue could make the laws unconstitutional.

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Others say the laws could backfire by lulling communities into a sense of security that the ordinances simply can’t deliver. But those aren’t the concerns fueling the drive to approve the restrictions.

“If we can get these people out of our community, it’s not that these crimes won’t happen,” said Christopher J. Shipley, 38, a real estate lawyer and member of the Mount Dora City Council.

“It’s just that they won’t happen in my community.”

Last month, as his wife prepared to give birth to their fifth child, a girl, Shipley asked the city attorney in this lakeside town of about 11,000 northwest of Orlando to draft an ordinance that would make it harder for sex offenders to live here.

The City Council gave tentative approval to the measure in a 6-0 vote June 21.

Under the law, which must be approved again on second reading, Shipley said: “There will be no area in Mount Dora where these people can reside, except in a few pockets zoned as industrial.”

Miami Beach’s mayor started the regulatory trend in April with an announcement that his city wanted to toughen an existing Florida law that barred people convicted of sexual molestation and other offenses against children from residing within 1,000 feet of a school. Dermer proposed expanding the distance to the minimum mandated by state law for adult-movie theaters.

“I thought, if we’re going to have 2,500-foot separation between adult entertainment and schools, why only 1,000 feet between sexual predators and schools?” Dermer said.

Miami Beach’s ordinance, unanimously adopted last month, bars anyone convicted of a sexual crime against a victim 15 years of age or younger from moving to a permanent or temporary residence inside the protected zones. Convicted sex offenders who already live in those areas would be exempt.

Violators may be fined $500 or jailed for 60 days; a second offense carries a fine of as much as $1,000 and a maximum jail sentence of 12 months. Landlords inside the buffer zones are prohibited from renting to known sex offenders.

Only “slivers” of his city will be open to sex offenders wanting to move in, Dermer said.

Despite questions raised about its legality and effectiveness, the South Florida resort city’s ordinance swiftly became the template for other municipalities, two dozen of which had adopted similar legislation in recent weeks or were in the process of doing so.

The immediate impetus was the killings this year of two Florida girls, Jessica Lunsford, 9, and Sarah Lunde, 13. Known sex offenders have been charged in both slayings.

“With what’s happened recently, with all the deaths of these young children, it’s a way for people to strike back,” said Tony Shoemaker, Mount Dora’s interim city manager.

Appalled by the slaying of Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped, raped and buried alive, the Florida Legislature approved a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in prison for people convicted of certain sex crimes against children 11 and younger. Those who are freed would be subject to lifetime tracking by global positioning satellite.

Some counties in the state have also acted to limit contact between sex offenders and potential victims.

In the Tampa area, commissioners voted unanimously to ban the roughly 1,200 registered sex offenders and predators in Hillsborough County from public shelters in the event of a hurricane. Sheriff David Gee, who proposed the ban, said they “ought to fend for themselves” during a storm.

In Miami-Dade County, commissioners gave preliminary approval to a measure making it illegal for registered sex offenders to visit public parks or beaches without valid reasons or without family members along as escorts.

One reason for the quick succession of municipalities approving the new rules on where sex offenders can live is that no one wants to be last, said Jan K. Seiden, city attorney for Miami Springs. The suburb of 14,000 near Miami’s international airport adopted its ordinance on first reading June 18.

“If you border 4-5 municipalities that are all together and one of them is not putting this ordinance into effect, that is probably the location the sexual offenders are going to live,” Seiden said.

As the movement has gained momentum, however, voices have been raised to challenge the legality, as well as the effectiveness, of the ordinances.

“It’s politicians trying to get to the microphone quickest so they can announce to the world that they are against sex offenders,” said Howard Finkelstein, public defender for Broward County. “You know what? We all are.”

Finkelstein said he thought many of the ordinances would be struck down as unconstitutionally broad restraints on where sex offenders could live.

Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Va., said the ordinances might lull parents and children into a false sense of security, as well as deter convicted sex offenders from registering their place of residence as required by law.

“It’s better to know where they are than where they aren’t,” Atwell-Davis said.

Teresa Jacobs, program manager with the Jacob Wetterling Foundation of St. Paul, Minn., a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting children, said the new local laws would make it harder for people with a record of sexual offenses to reenter society.

“If you run someone out of your town, make it impossible that they work or go grocery shopping, you are effectively increasing the risk to society,” Jacobs said. The ordinances also appeared to target only sexual assaults on minors by strangers, she said, although most are by a relative, friend, coach, faith leader or other known and trusted figure.

Mount Dora Mayor James E. Yatsuk, who was absent from the meeting in which his six City Council colleagues gave initial approval to their town’s ordinance, said the proposal gave him “extreme reservations.”

“It’s not politically expedient to be for child molesters,” Yatsuk said. But research has shown that greater stability in sex offenders’ lives tends to discourage them from committing more crimes, he said. As well, he said, the safe zones wouldn’t necessarily have saved Jessica Lunsford and Sarah Lunde. Both girls were abducted from their homes.

“You pass an ordinance to make people feel safer,” Yatsuk said. “But are they safer? Or is it better to educate parents on how to best protect their children?”

Proposed Ordinance No. 878 may be taken up again today by the City Council. Mount Dora’s police chief said he favored the measure. This picturesque town of brick storefronts, which has a shuffleboard court in the heart of its downtown business district, is home to 24 registered sex offenders, including two men classified as predators whose victims were 15 or younger.

“If we can keep sexual predators from where children congregate, common sense will tell you there is less likelihood of an offense occurring,” Police Chief T. Randall Scoggins said.

At least 14 states ban sex offenders from living in certain areas.

In California, a person convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior or continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14 cannot reside within a quarter of a mile of an elementary or junior high school, said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.

Iowa, which has one of the most restrictive laws in the nation, bars convicted child molesters from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day-care center. In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Iowa law as serving the interests of public safety. The ruling was cited by many in Florida who wanted to impose stricter limits on where sex offenders could live.

“We’re not punishing these people any more than the lepers of ancient times were punished,” said Shipley, the Mount Dora councilman. “We’re just isolating them from our community.”


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