Miami-Dade Sex Offender Residency Ordinance Unsuccessfully Challenged
by David M. Reutter
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently challenged the constitutionality of a Miami-Dade County, Florida ordinance that, according to the organization, forces sex offenders on probation into homelessness by imposing residency restrictions so harsh there is literally no place where they are legally permitted to live.
The national ACLU and the ACLU of Florida filed suit against Miami-Dade County and the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) in federal court on October 23, 2014, seeking a permanent injunction against the ordinance, which prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of parks, bus stops, any structure the county declares to be a school or any place where children are likely to gather.
The restriction – two and-a-half times more expansive than required by the state – forced about 50 former offenders to move to a vacant parking lot on the outskirts of Miami where they sleep in tents, under tarps and in chairs surrounded by warehouses and railroad tracks, with no running water and no electricity, using a nearby field as a bathroom.
“As public policy, the Miami-Dade ordinance is a disaster,” declared Brandon Buskey, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “It has created a homeless population living outdoors in squalor, while doing nothing to serve public safety.”
“Disease, exposure to the elements, no drinkable water – these conditions make it extremely difficult to find and maintain stable employment and psychological treatment, which are the only two factors proven to reduce the likelihood of reoffending,” he said. “We know from decades of research that housing restrictions like Miami-Dade’s have no impact on reoffending and are more likely to increase it.”
Nancy Abudu, the ACLU of Florida’s legal director, added, “Sending someone just out of jail into homelessness makes no sense, not for the person and not for the public.”
The complaint, filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida, challenged the ordinance as vague and argued that it strips sex offenders of their right to due process and, as a result, leaves them in an unsafe and vulnerable position.
“These individuals, who frequently subsist on meager incomes after being released from prison, are unable to locate stable, affordable housing in Miami-Dade County,” the lawsuit states. “This transience is primarily because the ordinance arbitrarily renders off-limits broad swaths of housing.”
However, Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, a powerful lobbyist and the man behind the controversial ordinance, countered that the ACLU is simply rehashing an issue that’s already been settled.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has said they’re entitled to live places that don’t endanger the health, safety and welfare of law-abiding citizens of the U.S.,” Book said. Of the ACLU, he added, “They’re entitled to take their $350 [filing fee] to the courthouse.”
Book spearheaded the restrictive sex offender ordinance after his daughter Lauren was sexually molested by a trusted nanny for six years, beginning when she was 11. The nanny was later convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Prior to the enactment of the Lauren Book Safety Ordinance, Miami-Dade followed the state’s 1,000-foot residency restriction.
Forcing sex offenders on probation to move to the parking lot along the railroad tracks came in August 2013, after state officials were alerted that the trailer park where they had been staying was within 2,500 feet of the Miami Bridge Youth and Family Services.
“We were unaware that facility was considered a school,” said FDOC deputy communications director Misty Cash. “When we became aware, we’re going to do what the law says.”
The forced move was the fourth high-profile relocation of sex offenders since 2007. As previously reported in PLN, some 92 sex offenders were forced to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway bridge following their release from prison to comply with the “draconian” Miami-Dade ordinance. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.14; July 2009, p.36; June 2008, p.1]. The offenders were displaced after embarrassed officials bulldozed the cardboard and plywood structures where they had lived for about three years and erected “No Trespassing” signs.
By 2012, a number of sex offenders had congregated on a street corner in northeast Miami, sleeping on sidewalks and a median strip. They were soon forced to leave after Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff opened Little River Pocket Park on a vacant parcel of land between some homes in the neighborhood, only a few hundred feet from where the homeless sex offenders camped.
Then in the summer of 2013, 54 sex offenders were relocated to the trailer park until officials learned about the Miami Bridge Youth and Family Services, forcing yet another move to the parking lot in the warehouse district.
“We have no power here,” said Ernesto Rodriguez, a 74-year-old cancer survivor who breathes through a hole in his throat and lives in the parking lot.
“They treat us worse than animals,” added an offender who identified himself only as Rodriguez. “If they see a dog on the street, they rescue him.”
“It is Draconian; it is counterproductive,” stated Maria Kayanan of the ACLU of Florida, referring to the sex offender residency ordinance. “It should distinguish between offenders that pose a true danger to society and those who don’t.”
ACLU of Florida executive director Howard Simon said no one should be allowed to strip anyone of their basic rights and force them to live in dangerous and squalid conditions.
“This is the second chapter of the same sad story,” he noted. “The county provoked international outrage when it forced people to live under the Julia Tuttle bridge. Now it’s forcing people to live alongside railroad tracks.”
While that may indeed be outrageous, the federal district court hearing the challenge to the Miami-Dade ordinance did not find it unconstitutional. The court dismissed the suit in April 2015, finding the ordinance was not punitive in nature and advanced a legitimate governmental interest, and rejecting the ACLU’s procedural and substantive due process, ex post facto and vagueness claims. A motion for reconsideration was denied in June 2015, and the ACLU has since appealed the dismissal to the Eleventh Circuit. See: Doe v. Miami-Dade County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:14-cv-23933-PCH.
Sources: Miami Herald, www.aclu.org, https://miami.aclufl.org
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Related legal case
Doe v. Miami-Dade County
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:14-cv-23933-PCH|