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Small Florida town bans sex offenders through residency restrictions

SAN ANTONIO — Cleve Williams sat in the back and waited for his turn to speak, his cowboy boots, tan, shiny gold on the heel, tapping. He's 73, a small, compact man, buzz cut, glasses. Agitated. It was Tuesday night, the night the San Antonio commissioners would vote on an ordinance to essentially ban sex offenders from their small town.

Williams is a sex offender who was, in turn, offended mightily by their plan. According to him, he made one mistake in his life — touching an under-aged girl — and he spent three years in prison. He was released in 2002 and his probation sentence doesn't end till next year. He said he served in the Army, in Korea and Vietnam. He pays taxes. He's tired of being treated this way. He's still a citizen, he said. So he came from his house in Wesley Chapel to give the commissioners a piece of his mind.

He stood up.

"I'm Cleve Williams and I'm a registered sex offender," he said.

If sex offenders have no place to live, he asked, what will happen?

"When we live in the woods and form as a pack, like wild dogs, how are you going to keep track of us?" he asked.

He likened the proposed ordinance to the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. The ordinance states sex offenders and predators convicted of certain crimes against children cannot live within 1,500 feet of a school, day care center, public or private park and bus stops. The state buffer is only 1,000 feet and does not include bus stops.

There are 37 bus stops in San Antonio, which has about 1,000 residents. One of the citizens is a registered sex offender. He was not at the meeting Tuesday night.

Increasing the distance to 1,500 feet and adding bus stops — which often move and change — virtually bans sex offenders from the entire town.

"I'm here to be against it," Williams said, "and I think it's wrong."

The meeting was at City Hall, in a small room which fits about a dozen or so folding chairs.

Another man, a resident sitting in front, stood up.

"I was molested at 12 years old," said Thomas Knight.

He didn't plan on speaking. He certainly didn't think he would be sharing something so private. But he felt he needed to. "That man who molested me ruined me for years," he said, although he didn't say where the abuse happened.

"It still haunts me sometimes."

He said he's worked through it. He found God and can forgive. But, he also said he believes citizens have a duty to protect their children.

"If someone molested my children," Knight said, "they would never find the body."

Another man spoke, a sex offender from Dade City: Michael Rizzi, whose offense was looking at child pornography online. He said he feels awful for what Knight went through.

Still, he doesn't believe in bans. People whose offenses were "flashing to seeing something inappropriate on the Internet to rape to the most horrid things you can imagine — they are all being painted with the same brush," Rizzi said.

"It's not an answer."

The commissioners, who had discussed the measure at previous meetings, unanimously approved the ordinance Tuesday night without further comment.

It went into effect immediately. The one sex offender who lives in town will not be affected because he moved there before the measure was enacted.

San Antonio is one of many Florida cities that have passed such ordinances. Sex offenders in Miami-Dade were forced to live under a bridge after the area increased its buffer to 2,500 feet and added school bus stops.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Miami-Dade County. The case was dismissed and the court of appeals affirmed, making it legal across the state for municipalities to enact residency restrictions that exceed the state's, said Baylor Johnson with the Florida ACLU. He said that decision will remain unless another district court of appeal and the Supreme Court of Florida decides otherwise.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said this is a statewide problem. "Because the Legislature has allowed local communities to create a patchwork of local residency ordinances, many of which exceed the buffer zones that are required by state law, as predictable as night follows the day, Florida will be faced with a homelessness, public health and public safety crisis," Simon said in an e-mail.

"The effect will be that some released sex offenders will abscond, go underground or in other ways evade supervision by the Department of Corrections — making our families less safe."

Up next for the town: A ban on prescription pill clinics. There aren't any in San Antonio yet.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

Small Florida town bans sex offenders through residency restrictions 01/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 8:54pm]
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