Miami Sex Offender Camp Leads to Lawsuit

July 10, 2009

nytimes.com : Roadside Camp for Miami Sex Offenders Leads to Lawsuit.

Miami— They used to be invisible, the four or five convicted sex offenders camping out on the Julia Tuttle Causeway connecting Miami to Miami Beach. But for three years now — pushed by local laws that bar them from living within 2,500 feet of where children gather — more and more criminals have moved in.
At least 70 convicted sex offenders live here now, in a shantytown on Biscayne Bay with trash piles clawed by crabs.

It has become what even law enforcement officials call a public-safety hazard, produced by laws intended to keep the public safe. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in state court to strike them down. The complaint argues that Miami-Dade County’s 2,500-foot restriction illegally pre-empts the state’s restriction of 1,000 feet, creating a situation in which sex offenders are more likely to flee supervision and commit new crimes.

Similar challenges to local residency restrictions in New York and New Jersey have recently succeeded in court, but legal experts say the Florida case will be watched closely because few states have tougher laws, or have drawn as much attention for child abductions — from Adam Walsh to Caylee Anthony.

“Florida is important because they have tested the bounds,” said Corey Rayburn Yung, an expert in sex-offender law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “If Florida’s courts are willing to say, ‘No, no, you can’t do this,’ then it’s a sign that most other courts would come out the same way.”

The camp is a community no one wants to exist. The first sex offenders here, like Patrick Wiese, 48, who said he served time in prison after having his stepdaughter touch him inappropriately, arrived nearly three years ago and would like to leave. Smoking a cigarette under the bridge on Thursday, Mr. Wiese said he wants to move to Homestead. He has money. He has a job at a sandwich shop, but cannot find an apartment that complies with the law.

Jose Diaz — the county commissioner who sponsored the law establishing the 2,500-foot boundary in 2005 — said state corrections officials were to blame for placing sex offenders on state-owned land. He defended the county law by saying, “If I can save some kids from going through this agony, I’ve done my job.”

Gov. Charlie Crist, meanwhile, placed responsibility squarely on local governments, which have “the right to do what they feel is appropriate for the citizens that they serve.”

Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Corrections, put the problem in a broader perspective: “It’s an issue that everybody needs to deal with.”

But as the camp’s continued existence shows, no one has — which is not a surprise, Mr. Rayburn Yung said. “These laws are always universally popular,” he said. “The public loves it.”

Only the courts may force a change. The A.C.L.U. lawsuit argues that extreme residency restrictions contribute to homelessness, and lead sex offenders to commit more crimes because they are “living in filth and squalor, remote from family life.”

For proof, it cites the state’s online list of registered sex offenders and predators, which shows that 236 offenders in Miami-Dade County have skipped out on their probation, including some who used to live under the bridge on the causeway.

Ms. Plessinger said corrections officials shared the A.C.L.U.’s concerns. Noting that living under an interstate was a last resort caused by lack of money and the strict local rules, she said: “It’s not a good situation. It’s not a good situation for probation officers. It’s not a good situation for the offenders under the bridge, but it’s also not a good situation for public safety in Miami-Dade.”

cbs4.com : Lawsuits Fly Over Sex Offenders’ Encampment, Miami Sues State To Clear Out Camp By The Bay.

…But the law might change, depending on the outcome of two lawsuits filed Thursday over the hovel of homeless probationers. One lawsuit planned by the City of Miami blames the Florida Department of Corrections. A second suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, blames a local law.

Miami City Commissioners authorized a suit against the Department of Corrections, arguing that the state, which is charged with monitoring the sex offenders, should find them an appropriate place to live — rather than under a bridge.

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