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Tampa wants to keep sex offenders outside city limits

City attorneys are asked to determine if sex offenders can be kept from moving to the city.

Published January 19, 2007


TAMPA - The Tampa City Council is considering banning sex offenders from moving anywhere within the city limits.

They just need to find out if it's legal.

"These crimes are disgusting and despicable," said council member John Dingfelder, but he cautioned against passing any ordinance that might be unconstitutional.

"We have a delicate balance to be walking," he said.

The latest move came months after first raising the issue of how to restrict where sex offenders could live in the city.

Under a state law passed in October 2004, people convicted of committing certain sex crimes on children younger than 16 can't live within 1,000 feet of any school, day care center, park or playground.

Last year, the City Council voted to look into expanding the distance to 2,500 feet.

On Thursday, council members learned that the plan would concentrate sex offenders in just a few neighborhoods, including the area between Westshore Boulevard and the bay, around the University of South Florida and in New Tampa.

So they voted unanimously to ask city attorneys to determine whether banning sex offenders from moving into the city is constitutional.

The ban would not affect sex offenders already living legally in Tampa, only those who want to move to or within the city, or who became a sex offender after the ordinance took effect.

City Attorney David Smith warned that an all-out ban might be deemed unconstitutional if it is viewed as further punishing people who have already paid for their crimes.

But council member Chip Fletcher said he didn't think it would be a problem if the rule grandfathered in existing sex offenders so people wouldn't have to move out of their homes.

Miami Beach in 2005 passed a law that effectively banned sex offenders from the city. And Dyersville, Iowa, in 2005 passed a law that said sex offenders "shall not reside within the corporate city limits of Dyersville." Both laws remain in effect.

Council member Linda Saul-Sena questioned whether such laws are effective, and it might make it harder to keep track of offenders. She cautioned against passing an ordinance that sounds good but has unintended consequences.

Officials in Iowa said that after that state banned sex offenders from most urban areas, address registration dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent.

Sex offenders in Florida must register their addresses with law enforcement agencies, and their movements are monitored.

About 500 offenders live inside the Tampa city limits.

City Council member Shawn Harrison first proposed expanding limits on where sex offenders can live after getting complaints from Arbor Greene residents about someone living near schools. Michael Jones, 22, had moved to Arbor Greene to live with his mother. He had been convicted of raping a 6-year-old girl in Alabama.

"Our neighborhood shut down," Lynn Chernin told the Tampa City Council Thursday. No one went to the park or the community center because he was always lurking, she said.

Jones has since moved to a home near the Lowry Park Zoo.

Chernin and Arbor Greene resident Heather Allred said the City Council made a good start Thursday. But Allred worried that a rule that is too restrictive might force sex offenders underground.

"We'd rather have 90 percent compliance with registration than 50 percent," she said, referring to the Iowa experience.

The Hillsborough County Commission also is looking at expanding residency restrictions, and state Sen. Burt Saunders of Naples wants legislation for tougher limits statewide.

Smith, the city attorney, said that although not many of the restrictions being enacted around the country have been overturned, the courts may soon change direction.

"We are in a new era," he said. "How far is the court going to swing back?"

If governments keep tightening restrictions, offenders could ultimately be banned from the entire country, he said.

"That's the logical extension," Smith said. "And if that's the logical extension, there must be some limit to it."

[Last modified January 19, 2007, 00:58:36]

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