Thursday, June 23, 2005

County mulls sex offender storm shelter

Source: Bradenton Herald

Segregated shelters for offenders raise human rights issues

MANATEE - The Manatee County Sheriff's Office is considering whether to create two hurricane shelters especially for sex offenders, a spokesman said Friday.

Randy Warren said the plan exists only on paper, but the department's legal advisers were contemplating ways to implement the plan in time for this season's first hurricane threat, when and if it comes.

Each shelter, the locations of which have not yet been decided, would be manned by several law enforcement officers, Warren said.

The plan has been discussed over the past few weeks after the high-profile abductions and murders of two young Tampa Bay-area girls in which registered sex offenders are the suspects.

"For obvious reasons, we are a little more alert about where sex offenders are and how we can limit their contact with the public," Warren said. "When you have people sheltered for a long period of time, you like to know who you're sharing this room with."

But local criminal defense attorney Mark Lipinski said the plan could conflict with a number of constitutional doctrines, from equal protection to due process.

"This would just be one more step to get people on an almost apartheid-like basis," Lipinski said. "It's pretty startling. I hope this isn't a very bad idea whose time is now."

Lipinski noted there is a question of where to draw the line.

It could endanger the safety of sex offenders who would only be allowed into specific locations, Lipinski added. He said he would be much more concerned about sexual offenders going to a restaurant than a shelter, which has a law enforcement presence, as well as personnel and parents in a defined area.

The sheriff's office said it is aware of potential legal conflicts.

"We want the citizens of Manatee County to be secure and safe, but no one wants to violate anyone's rights, either," said Capt. Steve Litschauer, commander of the legal affairs and support division. "A policy is being reviewed. There are great legal and logistical and safety concerns."

Litschauer said there are upcoming police chief and county meetings scheduled to explore the idea further.

"I would think that all 67 counties have the same concern. We're trying to find out what everyone else has done," he said.

Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger has proposed using a 50-bed work release center at his county jail as a separate shelter for sex offenders.

A spokeswoman for the Manatee County chapter of the American Red Cross, which runs public hurricane shelters, said the Red Cross does not deny access to anyone who comes to the shelter.

"Here in our community, this is the first year that this has been a really heated issue," said Bobbi Larson, community affairs director.

Larson said that the topic of separating sex offenders into different shelters has produced heated discussion in recent county meetings, but she said she had not heard concerns from the public.

"We always advise parents that they need to pay attention to what their children are doing. The shelters are open to the general population. It's a representation of everybody in the community," Larson said. "The safety and security of shelter residents is always a primary concern."

Some people may be off required medications and some may have addiction issues, she said. And others, such as migrant workers, may not have a form of identification, making door checks difficult.

"There's so many issues going into this," Larson said.

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said separate shelters for sex offenders would be a logistical challenge given the touch-and-go nature of hurricanes.

Still, he said, they are a "worthwhile venture."

"If we create a culture in this state where sex offenders are not tolerated, I have no problem with that," Galvano said.

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