'Romeo' may get off sex registry

Published March 20, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - There are dangerous sex offenders, and then there are young people in love.

There are 40-year-old men who prey on young children, and then there are 19-year-old guys and their 15-year-old girlfriends.

But Florida's sex offender registry laws don't differentiate between such cases. Moreover, a new federal law requires Florida juveniles found at fault in sex crimes to register - even if they weren't tried as adults.

That means sexually active teens in consensual relationships - dubbed "Romeo and Juliet" cases - can find themselves on the same registry as someone like John Couey, the Citrus County man recently sentenced to death for the 2005 rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

There are only a few hundred such cases among the 40,000 or so sex offenders on Florida's registry.

But the ramifications of being labeled a sex offender - public embarrassment, limitations on where they can live and work - are serious enough that lawmakers have spent weeks working on a fix.

"I have a real concern that we're doing things that are ruining some people's lives," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "I mean, we all have children, and we know things can happen with teenagers."

Lynn and other lawmakers are trying to create a way for the Romeos and Juliets to get taken off the sex offender registry once they complete their court-ordered sanctions.

One proposal to be considered today by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee would allow juveniles and young adults to petition a judge for removal from the registry as long as the sexual act was consensual, and involving someone at least 14 years old and no more than four years younger.

The provision, for example, would apply to a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old, or a 15-year-old with a 19-year-old.

A similar House bill making its way toward the floor would allow young offenders to get off the list as long as their sexual partner was between 13 and 16, and no more than four years younger.

Under Florida law, it's currently a second-degree felony for anyone past his or her 18th birthday to have sex with someone who is younger than 16. In most consensual cases, the age never becomes an issue because the case isn't reported to authorities.

But all it takes is an angry parent who decides to press charges against his daughter's older boyfriend, and suddenly a young man with promise gets the worst kind of label, prosecutors say.

"The law is what the law is," said State Attorney Bill Cervone, whose circuit includes Gainesville. "In many cases, you do have a parent who literally is screaming bloody murder about what is going on."

"If they were young offenders, there's got to be a way to take them off the list," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "Who amongst us, thinking back in the days when we were 19 or so, weren't caught up in something? I mean, that could have been me!"