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In Pasco County court, inmate disputes sex offender label

DADE CITY — Christopher Munroe was arrested with a friend in Fort Lauderdale in 2001, accused of attacking a teenager and trying to rape her.

He pleaded no contest to the charges and served time in prison. Since then, Munroe has never gone long without running astray of the law. He was branded a sex offender — unfairly, he says — and anytime a law enforcement officer checks his name, that label appears and things immediately escalate.

But Munroe's plea in South Florida did not include the sex offender registration — the judge who sentenced him didn't make it a requirement. It appears to be the action of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which maintains the registry and has the power to add names. The law says people can be sex offenders even for nonsex crimes if their crime had a "sexual component."

Munroe, for his part, denies attacking the girl and says he never would have pleaded had he known he'd be branded a sexual danger.

What's more, his friend whom police say also tried to rape the teenager took a plea in the case, like Munroe, and went to prison.

Yet his name is nowhere on Florida's sex offender registry.

Munroe's case, which wound up in Pasco County after he failed to register here, raises a constitutional question about due process — how can people challenge the evidence used to declare them sex offenders if it's not done by a judge?

He's no angel

The allegations against Munroe and his friend, Clarence Wiley, were ugly. A 16-year-old girl walking home from the beach on Sunrise Boulevard said the two men propositioned her outside a drugstore. When she said no, she told police, they grabbed her, pulled down her bathing suit and fondled her breasts. She escaped and got help from police.

Munroe, in a jailhouse interview with the Times, claimed he barely spoke to the girl. He says he was using a pay phone while Wiley chatted with the girl, who bummed a cigarette and a beer off them, then walked away.

"That was it," he said.

A police officer approached them about a half-hour later, he said, and he and Wiley were off to jail. Munroe was also accused of hitting and spitting on the officer.

He wanted to fight the charges and go to trial, but he says his lawyer advised him that because of the allegations he'd probably be found guilty of something.

Prosecutors offered Wiley 20 months in prison to plead, and he took it.

Munroe was offered 29 months.

"I said, 'All right, you know what, I'm so tired of this,' " Munroe said.

Munroe is 36, handsome and tan with lots of tattoos. He is nicknamed Miami, after growing up in South Florida where he was in a gang as a youth and first went to prison at 16 for shooting into a crowd of people.

He once told a girlfriend, "I'm not a bad guy, but I'm not a good guy either," he said.

He is the single father of two sons, 10 and 11, and two stepsons, 19 and 15, who live with their mothers. He said he makes a point of spending time with them when he's not locked up.

Not long after he got out of prison, he says, he violated his probation and went back to prison. Upon his release, in 2004, he was presented with papers to register as a sex offender.

"(A prison official) said, 'You either sign it or you don't get out of prison.' I signed the paper," Munroe said.

He listed his sister's address in Zephyrhills but never really intended to live there. He worked in New Port Richey for a few months laying carpet. He says he spent time with his kids, doing family things on weekends.

When he learned from his sister that the sex offender unit was looking for him, he says, he skipped town to Texas. When he was crossing back into the country from Mexico, a warrant turned up from Pasco for failure to register as a sex offender.

Facing five years in prison, Munroe says his public defender advised him to take a plea deal for 20 months in prison.

He did, and this time when he got out in 2006, he registered. For a while, things were going okay.

"I had just got back everything, getting back into the groove of things," he said.

But there were incidents like one in Zephyrhills, when he was walking to a convenience store, shirtless, and a cop stopped him and asked his name. The sex offender alarm rang, and soon, Munroe was facedown on the hood of the police car.

Different outcomes

Clarence Wiley, Munroe's co-defendant in the Broward County case, served his 20 months and got out of prison in 2002. Since then, he has been arrested on drug and paraphernalia possession charges and numerous times for failing to appear in court.

He pleaded to charges several times and went to jail, but he has not been back to prison.

"Out of the same case, same facts and circumstances" one person became a sex offender and one didn't, Geoff Cox, Munroe's new lawyer, told a judge in a hearing last week.

Munroe is set to be released from prison in October on his most recent failure to register charge. But he wants out sooner. He successfully appealed a claim that his lawyer didn't raise enough questions about why he had ever been required to register, and the 2nd District Court of Appeal granted him a new hearing.

Cox argued to Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa that the allegations in the police report from Broward County aren't enough to establish him as a sex offender. For one thing, police reports aren't admissible as evidence in court, so how could they be sufficient to put someone on the registry?

Even so, without a hearing, it's impossible to know if FDLE officials relied on those or something else to put Munroe on the registry, Cox said.

"There was no hearing," he said. "Due process requires there to be a hearing on the matter. That original judgment and sentence did not designate him a sex offender."

Siracusa denied Munroe's appeal. He acknowledged the discrepancy between Munroe and Wiley, but likened it to two drivers speeding and only one getting pulled over.

Siracusa decided that Munroe's first attorney was reasonable in advising him to plead after reading the police report. But he told Munroe, who lost his temper at times in the hearing, that he could fight the designation in Broward County.

"If you believe there's no sexual component, you should definitely go back and do that," the judge said.

But no one in Broward County ever designated him a sex offender, Munroe shot back.

"You violated my constitutional rights in every way, I know that much," Munroe said, vowing to appeal, as he was led away in handcuffs.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

In Pasco County court, inmate disputes sex offender label 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 12:22pm]

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