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Sex Offenders Excluded from Florida Shelters During Hurricane

by David M. Reutter

As Florida was preparing for Hurricane Dorian in August 2019, government officials told registered sex offenders to seek shelter in county jails. “It was such a traumatic experience to be incarcerated. I’m not going to subject myself to that voluntarily,” said a representative with the Florida Action Committee (FAC), which advocates for the reform of sex offender laws. “I’d rather tie myself to a tree.”

Failure to comply with the law by staying away from shelters where children are present can result in new felony charges and imprisonment. Officials in Nassau and Flagler counties directed sex offenders to seek shelter at the county jail as Dorian’s 185 mph winds threatened Florida’s Treasure Coast. Osceola County set up a shelter specifically for sex offenders.

For those who chose to evacuate, a 2018 state law made seeking safety more onerous. That law requires sex offenders to register their temporary address, in person, with the sheriff’s office if they will be away from home for more than three days. They also must update their drivers license or ID card with the temporary address within 48 hours of their departure date. Failure to comply carries a mandatory sentence of six months of GPS monitoring, with a maximum of up to five years in prison.

The laws create a Hobson’s choice for registered sex offenders: They can shelter in place, go to jail, or risk evacuating and try to meet registrant requirements. “In many cases where it’s impossible to comply, you have no choice,” said the FAC representative. “You can’t go anywhere. You’re risking a third degree felony just to keep yourself safe.”

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office announced it would prevent sex offenders from going to shelters, and would arrest anyone with an outstanding warrant who sought safety at a shelter. Over 40 sex offenders were allowed to stay at a county administrative building instead.

“We’ve always done this,” said Polk County spokeswoman Carrie Horstman. “We’ve always checked for sexual offenders and predators during hurricanes.”

Pasco County set up a separate building as a shelter for sex offenders during Hurricane Irma, while offenders in Gadsden County were offered no other alternative shelter.

PLN has reported on this issue previously, in 2005. [See: PLN, Sept. 2005, p.23]. Apparently, over a decade later, Florida lawmakers still have taken no action to ensure that all state residents – including those convicted of sex offenses – are afforded safe shelter during hurricanes. More than 28,500 registered sex offenders reside in Florida. 

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Sources: theappeal.org, pbs.org, orlando­weekly.com