A Tampa man who spent 12 years in prison for molesting two young girls at a community pool does not have to register as a sexual offender until he pays a $10,000 fine, two Florida courts have ruled.
A judge in the Hillsborough Circuit Court and a panel of three judges in Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal in April said Ray La Vel James has not been released from the sanctions imposed in 2004, and he does not fit the definition of a sexual offender until the fine is paid, according to court records. James was released from prison in 2016 and is listed as a transient in Tampa, records show, but he has not paid the $10,000 fine.
James, who represents himself in court, said prosecutors have misused “or” and "a" and “the” when interpreting sexual-offender laws. James’ victories in two courtrooms could force lawmakers to rewrite a state statute to fix what Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren called a “massive loophole” in Florida law.
“This would shake up laws across Florida,” Warren said. “It’s a very rigid interpretation of the statute.”
Last week, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody asked the 16 judges on Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal to rehear the case. The April ruling “raises a question of great public importance” for victims of sexual assault, Moody said in a motion for a hearing. The outcome could “have significant practical implications for thousands — and perhaps tens of thousands — of sexual offenders” in Florida, Moody wrote.
The case has drawn statewide attention, from law enforcement and prosecutor groups to others representing victim rights. In recent weeks, among others, the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, Lauren’s Kids and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association have asked the court for time to file briefs to support Moody’s position that James should be required to register as a sexual offender.
“From a community standpoint, this means you’re going to have a whole bunch of sex offenders not registering,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association. “This is a public safety issue.”
In a telephone call on Monday, James declined to discuss the case with the Tampa Bay Times.
In September 2002, James was arrested after he was charged with molesting two girls — an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old — at a community pool in Hillsborough County. James had a reputation as someone who hung around children, brought toys to the pool and invited the two girls to play with him. Both girls testified that James put his hand in their bathing suits and molested them, court records show.
In 2004, a jury convicted James of sexual offenses. Based on the “heinous” and “egregious” nature of the crimes, a judge imposed the maximum prison term and fine, records show. He was released from prison in November 2016 and moved to Tampa. He later refused to register quarterly as a sexual offender. Prosecutors charged James with failing to register, and he began to fight the designation in court.
James contends he will not be released from the sanctions and required to register until the fine is paid.
Judges agreed with James. In June 2018, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Kiser ruled the sanctions included both prison and the fine. The “strict application of the statutory language" is an “unintended consequence of the legislature including “fine” as a type of sanction that would label a defendant as a “sexual offender," he wrote.
“The Court finds that the statutory language is unambiguous, and thus requires application of its unequivocal meaning,” Kiser wrote.
Prosecutors continued to appeal.
The April ruling from Judges Andrea Smith, Darryl Casanueva and Craig Villanti said James’ sanction consisted of 15 years and a $10,000 fine, but his release from prison has no effect on the fine. The judges said they are “bound by the plain meaning of the language used in the statute."
According to Florida law, a person meets the criteria of being a sex offender after being convicted and released "from the sanction imposed for any conviction,” including, “but is not limited to, a fine, probation, community control, parole, conditional release, control release, or incarceration in a state prison, federal prison, private correctional facility, or local detention facility,” the ruling said.
Florida law does not say a person must be released from either “a sanction” or “the incarcerative portion of the sanction” to qualify as a sexual offender, the trio wrote. And the Florida Legislature did not provide for an automatic designation as a “sexual offender” upon conviction for certain crimes, the judges wrote.
The judges said they are mindful of prosecutors’ fears that a “defendant could take advantage of this provision by simply failing to ever pay a fine in order to delay having to comply with the reporting requirements,” adding, “but this is an issue for the legislature to address and not the courts.”
Warren said the loophole in Florida law needs to be fixed in the next legislative session. He said he expects the case to end up at the Florida Supreme Court. He said he also expects other defendants to use the rulings to skirt registration requirements after getting out of prison. His office, he said, “will aggressively fight” any attempts to overturn registration requirements.
“We require sexual offenders to register so moms and dads can see if any live on the street,” Warren said. “The ruling conflicts with the spirit of the law.”
Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.