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NEW LAW LIFTS MAN'S SEX OFFENDER STATUS

A 28-year-old man has shed his sex offender status under a new "Romeo and Juliet" law intended to allow certain people convicted of teenage sexual activity to separate themselves from the state's registered sex offenders.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Anthony Croce of St. Petersburg is the only person so far to qualify for removal from Florida's registry of sex offenders under the law nicknamed for William Shakespeare's famous star-crossed teen lovers.

Underage sex is still a crime in Florida, but the law, which went into effect in July, allows a judge to remove the sex offender designation in certain cases. The victim in the case must be between 14 and 17, a willing participant in the sexual activity and no more than four years younger than the offender. The offense must be the only sex crime on the offender's record.

Croce was 17 when he started having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend, but her mother pressed charges after he turned 18. Croce pleaded no contest to lewd and lascivious behavior, which required him to register as a sex offender.

"The new law recognizes that those people, who as teenagers experimented with sex with another teenager, should not be lumped in with the predators," said Croce's attorney, Denis Michael deVlaming of Clearwater. "He didn't deserve to be treated the same as others who really do belong on the registry."

Authorities said very few people will likely qualify for removal under the law. A review of 900 sex offenders in two Florida counties found only three who might qualify, the Orlando Sentinel reported. None of those offenders have asked a judge to remove the designation.

There are more than 43,000 men and women registered as sex offenders or sexual predators in Florida. The offenders must keep their addresses updated, are barred from living close to schools and their photos are easily accessible on law enforcement Web sites.

Many prosecutors, defense attorneys and state lawmakers agreed the state needed to make a clearer distinction between teen lovers and sexual predators.

"You don't want to label a guy or a girl a sex offender for life if they don't truly deserve it," said former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, a Crystal River Republican who sponsored the bill. "I have no compassion for sexual predators, but on the other hand ... you want to know who is the real menace to your children."

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