Plan for sex ban not favored

City attorney doesn’t recommend a plan to ban sex offenders from living in Tampa.

Published February 14, 2007

TAMPA — Don’t do it. That’s what the city attorney will tell the Tampa City Council today after studying the legality of banning sex offenders from moving into Tampa.

City Attorney David Smith says such a law would likely be challenged as unconstitutional and would be difficult to defend.

“We don’t need to go that far,” Smith said Wednesday. “We need to do something that’s more measured and effective.”

Rather than the citywide sex offender ban council members proposed in January, Smith said he will suggest the council consider “exclusionary zones” that define places where offenders can’t be, instead of where they can’t live.

That approach is in line with a new bill in the state Legislature filed by state Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City.

Most council members contacted Wednesday said they would heed Smith’s advice on the citywide ban.

“I do not want to go down a path that’s clearly unconstitutional,” said council member Shawn Harrison. “That would be a waste of time and taxpayer’s money.”

Glorioso’s bill, meanwhile, would make it a first-degree misdemeanor for some sex offenders to be within 300 feet of places where children gather, such as schools, parks, playgrounds and day care centers. Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, will sponsor similar legislation.

Glorioso said he crafted the bill with the help of state Department of Corrections officials, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and state attorney’s office.

His goal with the bill, which also establishes penalties for homeless offenders who don’t check in with the sheriff’s office every two weeks, is to close loopholes in state laws without denying constitutional rights or creating ineffective laws.

Other state lawmakers have also introduced bills to strengthen regulation of sex offenders. Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, has proposed a bill that would extend the residency restrictions placed on sex offenders to 2,500 feet from key locations.

As of now, 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. The law applies only to people whose crimes were committed after the law took effect in October 2004.

But Glorioso said he believes Saunders’ proposal is dangerous and that law enforcement officials have told him such restrictions could push sex offenders underground.

“The last thing we want them to do is disappear,” he said. “You want to know where they are so you can watch them.”

Glorioso said where sex offenders live is not as important as where they spend time.

One section of his bill forbids some sex offenders from participating in holiday events that involve children, specifying that they can’t work as a Santa Claus or an Easter Bunny, or wear a clown costume.

“We find that they’re everywhere,” Glorioso said.

The Tampa City Council first discussed how to further restrict sex offenders in November.

Harrison raised the issue after hearing concerns from New Tampa residents about a man charged with raping a 6-year-old girl in another state who moved into the neighborhood, near schools and a playground. The council voted to look into expanding the residency restriction to 2,500 feet.

After learning that the plan would concentrate sex offenders in just a few neighborhoods, members asked city attorneys to determine whether banning sex offenders from moving into Tampa altogether is constitutional.

Such laws have become popular in recent years after a wave of high-profile sex crimes against children. To date, Smith said, there is no clear legal precedent on banishing sex offenders from a community. But courts have indicated they would reject laws that banish people from a community, he said.

Harrison said he still is interested in expanding the residency restriction to 1,500 feet if that would not lead to legal problems.

The Hillsborough County Commission, in response to the City Council’s actions, is also considering expanding residency restrictions.

But Commissioner Ken Hagan has suggested instead creating “child safety zones,” such as parks and libraries, that would be off limits to people convicted of sex crimes against children.

“I’m inclined to leave the residency restrictions as they are now,” Hagan said.

The commission is scheduled to discuss the matter next week.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.