'Romeo and Juliet' law offers a way off Florida's sex offender list

TALLAHASSEE — The facts in Terry Gorby's case aren't in dispute: When Gorby was 18, he had consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend.

The girl's mother pressed charges, and Gorby ended up guilty of lewd and lascivious battery on a minor.

As a result, Gorby was classified a sex offender.

The question is: Should he be forever?

A 2007 law passed by the Florida Legislature is offering people like Gorby a second chance. Nicknamed the "Romeo and Juliet" law, it allows judges the discretion to weigh crimes like Gorby's with the lifelong punishment that comes with being labeled a sex offender.

So far about 250 people — all but six of them men — have successfully petitioned a judge to remove their name, mug shot, address and other personal information from an online state sex offender and predator database, according to the Florida Senate.

Nearly a quarter of the people removed from the database committed their crimes in Pinellas and Pasco counties, the study found, the highest concentration in the state.

Why?

"I can't tell you why that number is like that," said Beverly Andringa, the Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor who reviews the requests.

One explanation might be the approach of Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger and Pinellas County sheriff's detectives.

The Sheriff's Office devotes a unit of eight detectives to monitoring the county's sexual offenders and predators. They keep a paper trail for each one's original offense, which makes it easy to spot someone who may be eligible for removal from the state database.

"If we know somebody is eligible to be helped out by a law, well, it's also our duty to notify them so they can take advantage of it," said Detective Scott Summers.

Spokesmen for the Hillsborough and Pasco sheriff's offices said their sexual offender units do not actively suggest the option. The circuit court in Hills­borough County has approved just five requests.

"Generally the victims do not want them removed from the registry," said Rita Peters, chief of the sex crimes division of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

Florida's age of consent is 18, though the law contains a provision allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to consent to having sex with someone age 16 to 23.

To qualify for removal under "Romeo and Juliet," the victim must have been at least 14 years old and the offender no more than four years older. The sex must have been consensual, and the offender must not have additional sex offense convictions after the original offense.

Nancy Argenziano introduced the Senate bill in 2007 after she realized that the sex offender database — aimed to expose the "real dirt-bags out there" — also targeted some offenders caught up in young love.

"I heard people say, 'Wait a minute, you're talking about the kid down the block who's dating a 17-year-old?' " said Argenziano, who served in the Senate as a Republican but is now registered with the Independent Party. "We wanted to distinguish between a predator and kids in love, or thinking they're in love."

Attorney Jason Cobb, 43, of DeFuniak Springs has seen how the label destroys young lives. That's why he's helped 33 men and one woman get off the registry in two years, including six from Tampa Bay and three from South Florida.

"Once you're on the registry, you're on there for life unless you can convince somebody to help you out or the governor's going to pardon you," he said.

Cobb said he refuses to work for the majority of people who ask for his counsel because he isn't comfortable fighting to remove their names.

"The last thing I want to do is remove someone's name from the registry who belongs on the registry," he said.

Then there are clients like Gorby, now 23. He broke the law, but was he a threat?

In May, three years after his arrest, a judge decided Gorby was not.

Gorby, who lives in Leesburg, still has a criminal record but said he finally feels free. He can travel across county lines for days at a time without telling local deputies. He can hang out with friends in city parks.

"Now I can go to the movies and feel equal," Gorby said, "like everybody else."

'Romeo and Juliet' law offers a way off Florida's sex offender list 09/16/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 4:40pm]

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