Just a show of hands for how many people out there have ever dealt with government red tape? Everybody? And, have you ever had the experience in which one government clerk tells you to do “X”, so you do it, only to be told later by a different worker that you did it all wrong? Often, the answers you get by government officials depend upon who “answers” the phone.
Well, today we’re going to discuss what Jesus termed the “least of our brothers”–sex offenders. Sex offenders are treated like second class citizens long after they have complete their prison sentence, completed the treatment programs, and paid all the fines. Basically, they’ve done their time, but are still paying for the crime thru the lifetime of registration regulations and unemployment. Our paranoia over the presence of sex offenders has led to cumbersome reporting requirements for all those Florida citizens that have a sex offense in their past (and even for tourists, see my article FDLE’s Sex Offender Database Lies to Florida Citizens). Our local law enforcement agencies are required by law to personally verify the addresses of every sex offender living in their jurisdiction. Of course, if a person robs people at gun point–their address is not verified. Home invasion robbers that tie you up and beat you–their address is not verified. If a person is convicted of multiple murders, that address is not verified. But, if you’ve been caught with child porn on your computer, your address must be verified for life.
In case you didn’t know, sex offenders must report their whereabouts constantly, or risk arrest on a failure to register as a sex offender charge. Offenders must report a “change” of their address within 48 hours, and must update even a current address a couple times a year. This reporting must be done in person. And, the reporting must be done at both the sheriff’s office, and the Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”).
Recently, an appeals case came out addressing just such an issue. Mr. Owens, a sex offender, was convicted of failing to register a change of address in Owens v. State of Florida, 94 So.3d 688 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012). Owens complied with the statute by reporting in person to the sheriff’s office. Owens complied by reporting to the DMV in person, and giving them his address update. However, the DMV would not update his address because Owens did not have sufficient documentation of his new address. As such, he was eventually arrested for failing to register by renewing his driver’s license or ID card. Can you believe our tax payer dollars are going to arrest and jail someone who complied with the statute yet did not have proper documentation? Remember, the sheriff’s office knew of his new address, and they then put it on the FDLE sex offender website. And, even the DMV was informed of the new address, yet the DMV would not physically change Owens’ DL or ID card without first being provided the proper documentation.
So, Owens took his case to the jury. The jury found him guilty, as mentioned above. However, this was a smart jury, in some respects. Smart, because they asked the right questions. The jury asked the judge for “clarification regarding the meaning of ‘knowingly failed to report.’” Had the judge answered this properly, the jury probably would have found Owens not guilty. However, the judge threw a grenade into the jury room by answering the question as follows:
“Does knowingly fail to report legally imply that you are not just physically present, but that you must complete proper documentation? The answer to that is yes.
Knowingly fail to report implies that you must be more than physically present, but that you must comply [by providing] proper documentation”. Id at 689.
Really, is this true? No. The judge was wrong. The statute does not say this. And, what the judge did was “improper because it instructed the jury on an issue of fact”. Id. The appeals court overturned Owens’ conviction, reasoning that the lower court judge “essentially instructed the jury that by failing to successfully register with the DMV, Owens ‘knowingly’ failed to comply with section 943.0435(4)(a). This invaded the fact-finding province of the jury and constitutes reversible error.” Id. at 690.
As you can see, the lifetime of registration requirements imposed on sex offenders is a government maze that not even the prosecutors and judges fully understand. These jury trials cost money. The arrest of Mr. Owens cost money. The sex offender surveillance squads cost money. And for what? For an address that was, actually, properly submitted to multiple government agencies? Is it any wonder we don’t have enough money to pay our teachers?