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Miami Sex Offenders Still Living Under Bridge; Lawsuits Fail to Solve Problem

by David M. Reutter

PLN has reported several times on the plight of Florida sex offenders forced to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami due to restrictive sex offender residency laws. [See: PLN, July 2009, p.36; June 2008, p.1]. Despite local and national media attention, as well as two lawsuits, there has been no resolution to this problem.

Living in Miami’s sex offender “colony” under the causeway bridge is an onerous task even for healthy people; it is much more difficult for those with health concerns. One sex offender was returned to prison due to complications involving his medical needs and the deficient living conditions under the bridge.

After five years in jail, Eduardo Galego took a plea bargain for time served and probation. Galego’s conviction for sexually assaulting a 17-year-old while using a knife required him to register as a sex offender, which in turn required him to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway since he could find no other suitable housing.

Miami city and county ordinances restrict sex offenders from residing within 2,500 feet of a school, day care center, park, playground or public school bus stop (City of Miami Ord. 37-7). The city ordinance is more restrictive than state law, which requires that sex offenders live at least 1,000 feet from such locations, with certain exceptions (Fla. Stat. § 794.065). According to an August 2009 report prepared for the ACLU of Florida that evaluated available housing for sex offenders under current residency restrictions, only 43 rental units were suitable for sex offenders in the Miami-Dade County area with monthly rental costs of $1,250 or less.

The sex offender encampment under the Julia Tuttle Causeway is equivalent to a modern-day leper colony, created by laws purportedly intended to “protect the public.” Bridge residents live in squalid conditions; they lack running water, use makeshift toilets, and have a small generator for electricity which is used to charge their ankle monitors. If they miss a 10:00 p.m. curfew check, it’s a violation of their probation.

On January 24, 2008, Galego missed his curfew. A diabetic, he claimed that while on his way back to the bridge he became ill, suffering slurred speech, impaired vision and vomiting, and then fell asleep on a bus. As a result, he missed his bus stop and evening curfew.

The next morning he made it to a hospital where he was treated for a serious diabetic breakdown. His probation officer assumed he was drunk; the court revoked his probation and sent him to prison to serve out the remainder of his 25-year sentence.

“Living under the causeway is deleterious to diabetics’ health – insulin must be refrigerated, but there is no electricity under the causeway. Without electricity, it is difficult to adhere to the prescribed regimen of small, frequent meals, and humidity depletes volume, throwing off glucose, which raises the blood sugar level. The wrong amount of insulin or food ... can cause kidney failure, amputation of the extremities, or blindness,” states an appellate brief filed on Galego’s behalf by the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office. “Substantial uncontroverted lay, medical, and documentary evidence established that he missed curfew because he had become sick that day with acute complications of diabetes mellitus, leading to emergency intervention at the hospital.” Despite this argument, Galego remains in prison.

Notwithstanding Galego’s medical condition, the state’s primary concern was that he return to the sex offender colony after curfew. If that posed a danger to his health or life, apparently that’s a risk the public – and public officials – were willing to take.

Ironically, restricting where sex offenders can reside, which drives them to homelessness or to improvised housing like the bridge colony, may actually endanger public safety. With a lack of stability and sense of desperation due to their precarious living situation, some offenders may be more likely to reoffend. According to state records, 235 registered sex offenders in Miami have absconded while on probation, including some who had lived in the bridge encampment.

“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,” admitted Florida Dept. of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. “Our concern is for public safety,” she said. “If they are homeless there is more of a chance they will abscond.”

The ACLU of Florida and Florida Institutional Legal Services filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade County in July 2009, challenging the city’s sex offender residency ordinance. Their suit argued that the state law imposing a 1,000-foot restriction on where sex offenders could live preempted the city’s 2,500-foot restriction. A circuit court disagreed, however, and dis-missed the suit on September 23, 2009, finding there was no implied preemption of the city’s ordinance by state law. The ACLU has appealed the court’s decision. See: Exile v. Miami-Dade County, Circuit Court of the 11th Judicial Circuit (FL), Case No. 09-51205 CA 13.

The City of Miami, in turn, has filed suit against the State of Florida, claiming that the state created a public health nuisance by allowing or facilitating the sex offender bridge colony, in violation of city codes and the Florida Constitution. The city further claims that the state’s failure to remedy the situation involving sex offenders living under the bridge violates Miami’s residency restriction ordinance, as the colony is within 2,500 feet of a “park” – a small off-shore island. The city is seeking an injunction requiring the state to relocate the sex offenders.

On Sept. 23, 2009, the Court of Appeal for the Third District held that the trial court had improperly denied the state’s motion for a change of venue, and that the suit should be heard in Tallahassee. The case was therefore remanded for further proceedings, including a change of venue to the Second Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee. See: Florida Dept. of Transportation v. City of Miami, Case No. 3D09-2300; 2009 Fla. App. LEXIS 14096 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist.).

There were about 50 sex offenders living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway as of September 2009, down from 100 several months before. Money from the federal stimulus package, designated to assist the homeless in Miami, is being used to help bridge residents find appropriate housing.

City efforts to relocate the sex offenders living under the bridge are being led by Ron Book, who chairs the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust. Book, a lobbyist, worked to enact stringent sex offender laws, including residency restrictions, after his own daughter was sexually abused; he has referred to sex offenders as “monsters.”

“I personally believe that residency restrictions have value and importance,” he said. “Nobody said that someone exiting the prison system after committing a sexually deviant act on a child has a right to dictate where they live.”

Not surprisingly, sex offenders who have been forced to reside under the bridge disagree. “I am not a monster. I’m a human being,” said bridge colony resident Homer Barkley, who emphasized that he had served all of his prison time. “I got family like you got family. ... I don’t deserve this. Regardless of what a person did, everyone deserves a second chance at life.”

Interestingly, some victims’ rights advocates agree that sex offender residency laws may not be the best approach to protecting the public. “I don’t think 2,500 feet [as a residency restriction] is the best number, and I don’t think anyone should live under a bridge. But do I think they should be away from children? Absolutely,” said Ron Book’s daughter, Lauren, who founded “Lauren’s Kids” to educate and support children who are victims of sexual abuse and their families. “We don’t want anyone living under a bridge to be so desperate they reoffend,” she noted. Lauren, who has visited the bridge colony, is helping to find suitable housing for the sex offenders living there.

However, even if the problem involving Miami’s sex offender colony is resolved, that won’t address the larger issue. “Unless the county brings its ordinance in line with state law, another shantytown will spring up as sure as night follows day,” observed Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. He said the sex offender colony under the Julia Tuttle Causeway was a result of “unintended consequences.” But unintended or not, state and city officials have thus far failed to remedy the situation.

Sources: Miami Herald, New York Times, Miami New Times, ABC News, Palm Beach Post

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