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Not in My Bus Stop

11-30-2006 Florida:

The new fad cities can't seem to resist — keeping sex offenders out of every nook and cranny.

Last year, after the gruesome murder of Jessica Lunsford by a convicted sex offender, the City of Miami Beach decided to do something revolutionary. Even though Florida law already prohibited registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of places where children congregate, Miami Beach decided to make it illegal for any registered sex offender to live within 2,500 feet — nearly half a mile — of any school, day care center, public school bus stop, park, or playground within city limits.

It was the biggest buffer zone ever required between sex offenders and children, but soon almost every municipality in South Florida, including most independent cities in Broward County, followed suit. Today, only a handful of Broward cities, including Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, don't have similar ordinances.

And that means that if you take out a marker and draw 2,500-foot circles around every park, school, and bus stop in a city like Weston or Tamarac that has such an ordinance and then color all those circles in, you're left with a map that is almost entirely inked out.

For someone like Thomas Lacorazza, that means it's incredibly difficult to find a place to live.

The 23-year-old registered sexual offender from Weston recently became the first offender in Broward County to resist a residence restriction. In 2002, when Lacorazza was 18, he and his 13-year-old girlfriend of six months had sex. Soon afterward, Lacorazza thought she might be cheating on him.

"Since I was friends with her parents," he says now, "I thought that if I told her parents that we'd had sex, they'd stop her."

The girl's parents responded to the news by taking her to a psychiatrist, who told them that, by law, he was required to report Lacorazza to the police for having sexual contact with a minor. Lacorazza was arrested, tried, and found guilty of lewd and lascivious battery and molestation of a person between 12 and 16 years of age.

After his conviction, Lacorazza continued living with his grandparents and working for the family business run by an aunt. He ran into more trouble — a DUI while he was on probation, which was enough to send him to the Broward County Jail in early 2005. While he was incarcerated, Weston passed its residence requirement for sex offenders.

When Lacorazza was released from jail in August, he planned to return home to Weston to live with his grandparents. No one at the Department of Corrections, which approves the residences of sex offenders, raised an objection about his moving back to his old address.

But once Weston's code enforcement officers learned that Lacorazza had moved home, they soon found a school bus stop that was only 283 feet from the home of Thomas Timpanaro, Lacorazza's grandfather, and issued a citation.

Most Broward sex offenders don't resist when they're asked to get out of town. But two weeks ago, in front of a special magistrate for the City of Weston, Lacorazza and his family argued that because Lacorazza had lived near the bus stop and a neighboring school before the law was passed, he should not be subject to it. In other words, he was grandfathered at his grandfather's.

"He is not a predator, he is not a pedophile, he is not a danger to himself, and he is not a danger to anyone else. It was consensual; it was his girlfriend at the time," said Timpanaro, his grandfather. "When he was released from jail, he had to have a residence to go to. And we knew, with the probation officer, that he was coming back to our home."

But the magistrate ruled that while Lacorazza was in jail, he had forfeited his residence in Weston. If Lacorazza doesn't move out by January 1, he and his grandparents will each be charged $150 per day for violating city code.

"What he did with this girl, in the eyes of the law, was wrong. But he's not a predator — just give me a break," Timpanaro said after the hearing. "To me, it just doesn't make any sense. What the city has done is effectively prohibited anybody, no matter the offense, from living in the City of Weston."

But in comparison to many registered sex offenders in Broward County, Thomas Lacorazza has it easy. This is only the first time he's been kicked out of his home.

Mike, a registered sex offender living in Broward County who would give only his first name, has been forced to move four times in the past three years. Caught soliciting sex from an undercover sheriff's deputy posing online as a 16-year-old, Mike has been spending thousands of dollars on moving costs as a registered sexual offender ever since.

"It's very expensive," he says. "Everything I make, I've been spending on attorneys and security deposits."

He's had his car keyed and his tires slashed. Once, he was removed from a complex that contained only adults to a neighborhood with young children living in houses on either side of him — because the adult complex was too close to a community swimming pool. Another time, he spent only four days in an apartment because a police officer came into his building every night to pound on his door.

"He would yell at the top of his lungs, 'I'm here to check on you, sex offender!'" Mike says. "Then I'd open up the door, and he'd whisper to me, 'If you want this to stop, move. '"

Mike quietly packed up and moved — which is what most other sex offenders in Broward County do.

Jill Levenson, a researcher at Lynn University in Boca Raton, is studying the effect of residence restrictions on registered sex offenders in Broward County. The average Broward sex offender has had to move twice in the past two years, she says. Five of the 59 sex offenders she surveyed had to move seven times or more. Half have had landlords refuse to rent to them. And a fifth of them have been homeless for an average of two months.

"Let's face it — housing is a basic human need," Levenson says. "Some of them can't find anyplace to live. Pretty much all of South Florida is off-limits."

"When you draw all the circles around the schools, the day care center, there are only these little slivers left," says Stephen JohnsonGrove, a staff attorney at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, who has argued against residence restrictions.

Some Broward offenders have been told that they live too close to churches and fast-food restaurants with playgrounds or near "parks" that no one knows exist. (Last year, citizens in Pembroke Pines called for the inclusion of golf courses in their city's ordinance.)

But even though Florida's residence restrictions are some of the toughest in the country, no high-profile cases against them have emerged in the state.

"Florida's so aggressive on this issue that I really don't understand why no one has challenged the laws yet," Johnson Grove says.

The reason, says Barry Butin, a chair of the Legal Panel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Broward, is that so far, courts across the country have shot down attempts to defend sex offenders from residence restrictions.

"The appeals courts have disagreed with the ACLU on this issue," he says. "Either we or every other lawyer known to man has lost these cases."

Passing a law that effectively banishes a whole class of people from an entire city is usually considered a blatant violation of civil rights. But in this case — well, they're sex offenders.

"If three years ago, I had had too much to drink and I ran over a 16-year-old with a car, I would be done with my sentence by now," says Mike, the Broward sex offender. "You don't have to register for the rest of your life with a DUI. There's no murderer database."

"I think that people are so terrified politically with sex offenders that it doesn't matter what the laws are," Johnson Grove says. "Nobody wants to represent a sex offender."

"It's like defending cockroaches," Mike says. "Nobody will touch it."

Lacorazza's family is hoping that's not true. They're planning to appeal Weston's ruling in the hopes that a sympathetic judge will agree that kicking Lacorazza out of his grandparents' home doesn't help anybody.

"Otherwise, what happens is that he literally has no place to go," Timpanaro says. "The only place where he can live is with me. What do you do with these kids? Just throw them in the street?"

The not-in-my-backyard set would probably say yes. But banishment's track record shows that kicking sex offenders like Mike and Tom Lacorazza to the curb might actually put kids in more danger than letting sex offenders live near their school bus stops.

"There is a belief that if we know where sex offenders live and keep them from living near us, we can prevent future crimes from occurring," Lynn University's Levenson says. "There's really no empirical support of the idea that residence restrictions are an effective way to improve public safety. What we do know is that residence restrictions push sex offenders out of major cities and into rural areas, away from social support and treatment services, where they're more difficult to track and supervise. We also know that a lack of stability and a lack of social support are actually risk factors for criminal recidivism. When people feel like they have nothing to lose, that leads them to desperation and anger."

But city fathers aren't paying attention to Levenson. Just three weeks ago, Tamarac passed a law modifying its 2,500-foot Sexual Predator Ordinance — to add more explicit penalties. ..more.. by Julia Reischel

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