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Deltona's hysteria

Hurting children with sex-offender law

Moments before the Deltona City Commission passed its draconian ordinance banishing sexual offenders and predators from large swaths of town last May, George Griffin, president of the Deltona Association of the American Civil Liberties Union, warned commissioners about one possibility. "What's going to happen," Griffin asked, "if it turns out what we're doing actually does more harm than good?"

The warning came true last week. Juan Matamoros is a 49-year-old parent. The city found him in violation of its new ordinance and took him to court to force him to move by July 1. Matamoros has two sons, one of them 5 years old. They'll be forced to move, and could ironically end up living in an area with a higher concentration of predators and offenders. How such a move benefits those children is anybody's guess. For that matter, the same can be said about forcing Matamoros to move. Even ordinances more forgiving than Deltona's have been found to banish sex offenders and predators from the public eye into less visible undergrounds on the fringes of their communities and social support network.

Matamoros' case underscores the injustice and absurdity of Deltona's ordinance, which doesn't distinguish between predators and offenders, and even less so between the kind of offender a sex offender may be. It treats all offenders as if they were unredeemable child rapists. Most aren't even close to being in that violent predatory category. And most are redeemable, because they don't re-offend.

The absurdity of the ordinance is built into its wording. It "grandfathered" in the 109 sexual offenders and predators living in Deltona prior to the ordinance's adoption -- an implicit concession that the offenders aren't inherently a threat, and an admission on the city's part that it is willing to accommodate predators and offenders in some cases. There's another exception. Assuming a predator or an offender lives beyond the 2,500-foot boundary from any place where children gather, should a school, a day care center or a bus stop be built inside that boundary, the offender won't be required to move. It's a fair exception within an unfair ordinance, but also another contradiction of the justification behind the ordinance. And none of it helps Matamoros.

Matamoros says he never molested anyone but urinated in public, while drunk, and was seen by others. His offense dates back to 1986 in Massachusetts, when he was charged with two counts of open and gross lewd and lascivious behavior. Nothing more is known about the charges (Matamoros' court records are inaccessible, and his sex offense in Massachusetts does not rate in a category that makes his name public on the Internet, as it does in Florida.) Open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior can entail a number of things -- indecent exposure, exhibitionism or urinating in public in the presence of minors. It does not entail contact.

Massachusetts has a Sex Offender Registry Board that determines the level of risk of sex offenders and provides guidelines for cities and police on how and whether to make registry information public. The state categorizes its sex offenders into three levels. Level 1 means the individual's risk of re-offending or the risk posed to the community is low. Information on Level 1 offenders is not available to the public. Level 2 offenders pose a moderate risk. Their names are available only through direct, written inquiry to local police or the registry board -- not on public Internet databases. Level 3 offenders are considered to be risky enough that their names are made available on the Internet. (What's clear is that Matamoros is not a Level 3 offender, and most likely, as a nonrepeat offender, falls under the Level 1 category.)

If the names of sex offenders who have already served their time should be maintained in publicly accessible government databases -- a big if -- the Massachusetts model is fairer. But Florida doesn't even distinguish between levels of sex offense before making all sex offenders' records Internet-accessible. Cities like Deltona have piled on the restrictions by passing prohibitive ordinances banning offenders from town. Deltona's commissioners -- William Harvey, Michele McFall-Conte, Michael Carmolingo, Zenaida Denizac, David Santiago, Janet Deyette and Mayor Dennis Mulder -- may have done the politically expedient thing last May. But not the right thing. What they're forcing Juan Matamoros and his family to do is proof.

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