Florida Legislators Consider Standardizing Local Sex Offender Laws

April 19, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

As a Fort Lauderdale sex offender registration violation defense attorney, I work with sex offenders who face a lifetime of restrictions on their movements and activities. This work has given me insight into the effects these laws have on the lives of people who are trying to build new lives while obeying the law, as well as their neighbors. That’s why I was pleased to see that the state Legislature is working to help them by making sex offender restrictions uniform across the state, and removing the most onerous local restrictions on residency. The law would replace a patchwork of 168 local regulations that can create confusion among offenders by setting different residency standards in different cities and counties. It will also make regulations more effective by restricting offenders’ daytime activities.

The proposed bill in the Florida Senate would establish a 2,500-foot zone around schools and day care centers. Registered sex offenders would not be permitted to live in those zones and must leave them between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. This is the same distance as restrictions already in place in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, but includes fewer places where children may gather. This part of the bill seeks to stop sex offender laws from creating homelessness, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel said April 14. The bill also establishes 300-foot buffer zones around schools, day-care centers, parks and playgrounds. Again, sex offenders may not loiter or “prowl” in those zones, but this restriction applies 24 hours a day. The Florida House version of the bill contains the buffer zones but omits the 2,500-foot residency restriction. It also prohibits offenders from dressing as Santa Claus or clowns, or passing out candy on Halloween. The House will vote April 22 on its measure.

This bill follows on the heels of a Miami-Dade County ordinance establishing buffer zones, and Broward County is considering a similar law. In fact, state lawmakers have been debating such a law for at least three years, since the colony of homeless offenders under the Julia Tuttle Causeway gained national attention. As a West Palm Beach sex offender registration criminal defense lawyer, I am delighted that the state is finally tackling this issue, and in a way that serves both the public interest and the needs of sex offenders trying to build new lives. Supporters say the buffer zones are actually more effective than residency restrictions, because they keep offenders away from kids during the day -- when schools and day-care centers are actually open.

By contrast, residency restrictions allow offenders to legally hang around schools and parks during the day. And as I’ve written here several times, those restrictions also make it very difficult for offenders to find a legal place to live. This helps create homelessness among offenders, who are typically legally barred from living with family members or friends and may not have access to affordable housing anywhere. The lack of a fixed address makes it harder for homeless ex-offenders to find a job, and all of those circumstances help alienate them from the society they should be trying to re-enter. In addition, homelessness makes it harder for law enforcement to track the movements of offenders, one of the stated goals of the original laws. This bill is one step toward taking away those problems.

The Senate version of the bill has attracted criticism from people who believe the 2,500-foot residency restriction is too restrictive and can still cause homelessness. As a Miami sex offender registration criminal defense attorney, I would prefer a smaller residency restriction, or one that’s narrowly targeted according to the circumstances. But even with the 2,500-foot restriction, this bill is still less restrictive than many county ordinances, and that’s something to celebrate. And with the buffer zone, the Legislature may be able to genuinely protect children better while also making Florida an easier place to live for registered sex offenders.