City of Miami Scatters Sex Offender Colony Under Julia Tuttle Causeway

March 8, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

As a Miami sex offender registration defense attorney, I was extremely interested to read that the city is taking steps to destroy its most notorious homeless encampment. According to a March 6 article from the Miami Herald, city work crews destroyed the encampment next to the Intracoastal Waterway that had housed as many as 100 homeless registered sex offenders. Many ended up there after sex offender residency restrictions made it difficult for them to live with relatives. But the camp caused a public outcry after it was discovered that law enforcement was actually sending offenders there if they had no place to go after release.

Mario Vasquez says this happened to him. The 24-year-old says Miami-Dade police ordered him to move under the bridge after his release from prison four years ago. He served two years for having consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend when he was 18. State lobbyist Ron Book, who has been fighting to break up the sex offender camp, said he would work with county authorities to find another place for Vasquez or send him back to his native Dominican Republic. Book heads the county’s Homeless Trust and has helped many of the offenders find other housing. He also helped pass the original sex offender residency laws, which he still supports, although he said he never intended to create police-ordered homeless encampments.

The Miami Herald had video of the camp’s dismantling:

A former resident of the camp named Patrick told the newspaper that there will be another such camp, even if it’s not under this particular bridge. As a Fort Lauderdale sex offender registration defense lawyer, I am concerned that Patrick may be right. Even when police don’t outright tell offenders to live under a bridge, the harsh restrictions keep them from living in almost any populated area. Without family or friends to fall back on, and with no job waiting when they get out of prison, they may have no way to avoid homelessness. This is bad for the offenders’ basic needs and rights, of course, and it makes it harder for them to get jobs and return to society. But it’s also a problem for law enforcement, because homeless offenders are harder to keep track of -- undermining the original purpose of the registration laws.

As a West Palm Beach sex offender residency criminal defense lawyer, I don’t know of any other crime that is treated as harshly as sex offenses. After other kinds of offenders have done their time and served probation, they only have limited restrictions on their rights and obligations to disclose their pasts. This includes people convicted of serious and violent, but non-sexual, crimes. As the article points out, Miami-Dade County has already taken steps to open more areas to residency by offenders, and other counties (or the Florida Legislature) may follow. But if legislators don’t have the courage to open up residency laws for offenders who merit lighter treatment -- or even distinguish between types of offenders -- Patrick’s prediction is likely to come true.