Perhaps this has happened to you.
Driving around, you spot a house you like. You decide to look on the property appraiser's web site to see who owns it, how big it is, how much it's worth. But when you put in the address, nothing comes up. Nada.
You've just encountered a protected address.
Throughout the Tampa Bay area, thousands of homes have all but disappeared from the public record because their owners are eligible under Florida law to have their addresses kept confidential. Initially, the idea was to protect judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers whose jobs put them in jeopardy. Over time, though, the list of occupations eligible for protected addresses has ballooned to include people who check if your grass is too high or if you're cutting hair without a license.
"It's out of hand," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee .
Protected addresses were recently in the news when the New York Post reported that the family of former pro football star and convicted felon O. J. Simpson had bought a house for him in St. Petersburg. Speculation focused — wrongly, as it turned out — on a waterfront home on which all information that could identify the owners had been redacted.
But the house wasn't all that unusual. In Pinellas County, 3,740 homes have protected addresses. In Hillsborough, it's 3,129. Pasco has 2,495 and Hernando 1,159.
Under Florida Statute 119.071, the list of property owners who may qualify for a confidential address now includes firefighters, EMTs, human resources managers (and assistant managers), code enforcement officers, tax collectors, juvenile probation officers, house parents, therapists, counselors, inspectors with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and even people work in the internal audit department of a government agency.
That's in addition to victims of violent crime, police, judges, state and federal prosecutors, public defenders, special magistrates and child enforcement hearing officers.
"It seems to me there are some categories not in there that the Legislature probably should consider, and there are some in there that I question the necessity," said Will Shepherd, legal counsel for the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office. "I wonder if code enforcement is more deserving than some teacher who has been threatened by a student. I don't know ---- that's a debate for the Legislature."
Petersen, whose non-profit foundation promotes open government, says Florida lawmakers have often added categories to the list despite little concrete evidence that a need for protection exists.
"When the Legislature wants to create a new exemption, there has to be a statement of public necessity," Petersen says. "We always say, 'Give us the evidence that proves the need,' and they say, 'Oh, somebody stole my Christmas lights' or 'Somebody might hurt them.' It's all speculative."
One example of what Petersen calls the "ridiculous" increase in exemptions came a few years ago after ISIS posted a "hit" list of 100 U.S. military personnel and encouraged its sympathizers on American soil to go after them. In reaction, Florida lawmakers exempted the home addresses of all current and former members of the U.S. armed forces who served after 9/11 and are now living in the sunshine state.
"It turned out the U.S. military had posted information bragging about their best and brightest and ISIS had just picked it up," Petersen said. "But if you worked in supply at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and moved to Florida, your home would be exempt from public disclosure."
Under the law, those who want their local property appraiser to keep their home address confidential must fill out a form and check the category under which they claim an exemption. They also must provide documentary proof they qualify.
"Some are pretty straightforward — if you are a judge or a police officer, those are all no-brainers," Shepherd said. "Ones that are more difficult, like people who have been threatened with some domestic violence, I do ultimately review to make sure they are in the statute. Frankly, there are just so many categories and our staff can't know all of them."
Shepherd recently spoke with a Realtor who was concerned about her safety and wanted address protection.
"Real estate agent is not in the statute, but I said, 'Let me refer you to the statute to see if there's some other way you might fall into one of the categories through the back door," Shepherd said.
The "back door'' can be the section of the law under which spouses and children of judges, police and certain others are also eligible for protected addresses. While family members can have valid safety concerns, Petersen sees a potential for abuse of the law, especially in situations in which a sheriff's department, for example, might award a lucrative contract to a business owned by the sheriff's wife.
"You would look in the personnel file to see who Sheriff Sam is married to and her name is exempt," Petersen says. "Julie is getting a sweetheart deal but how do we know that Julie and Sam are married?"
Even if Florida property appraisers exempt information, both Petersen and Shepherd note that in the age of Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, it is not hard for a disgruntled employee or embittered ex-spouse to track someone with a protected address.
Several years ago, Petersen met with guardian ad litems who sought an exemption because they deal with difficult situations including those in which people have lost their parental rights.
"They were in danger and showed evidence of threats, but before they came in I looked each of them up on the Internet and got maps to their houses. I got the names of their spouses, where the kids went to school and almost every one of them was in the telephone book," Petersen said. "I keep making this point — if I want to hurt you, I'm going to Google you and chances are I know where you work and can follow you home. It's virtually impossible to protect that information."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate