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Facing legal challenge, Pasco County changes strict sex offender law

DADE CITY — The Pasco County Commission on Tuesday amended its sex offender ordinance, the 2015 law that severely restricts where certain registered offenders can live or even go in the county.

But why the commission changed the law — which is being challenged in court — is in dispute.

Patrick Leduc, the attorney who is challenging the county's ordinance on behalf of three registered sex offenders, said the changes were designed to protect the ordinance from his legal challenge.

"The reason they surrendered was they knew they were going to have their heads handed to them in court," Leduc said.

But Luke Lirot, the attorney hired to defend the ordinance in court, said it's not uncommon for governments to amend legislation for clarity.

"Usually, it's predicated on something like the filing of a lawsuit," said Lirot, who made a career for himself fighting local ordinances. "So the lawsuit helps refine (the ordinance)."

The ordinance originally passed in April 2015 had two main components: One section restricted where newly registered sex offenders and predators can live, and the other section governed where they can go. Tuesday's amendment rewrote the latter section.

Originally, the rule prohibited sex offenders whose victims were under the age of 16 from living within 2,500 feet of any school, park, playground or library — more than double the state law's 1,000-foot requirement.

But Leduc argued in his lawsuit that the ordinance wasn't specific as to what counted as a school, park or playground. Also, the original ordinance prohibited registered sex offenders from loitering within 300 feet of "child safety zones." A zone included things like playgrounds, ice rinks, swimming pools, YMCAs, public beaches, businesses that cater primarily to children and the roughly 4,400 school bus stops in the county.

The amended ordinance is much clearer about what counts as a school, park and playground for the purposes of the 2,500-foot radius. And it eliminates child safety zones, which Leduc argued made it nearly impossible for offenders to go anywhere without violating the ordinance. Instead, it simply says sex offenders cannot be within 300 feet of children congregating anywhere unless they have a legitimate reason to be there.

Lirot said the changes aren't substantive, but rather codify how the ordinance was already being practiced and enforced.

"It simply takes the policies and puts them down in writing," he said.

But Leduc believes the changes represent the county walking back its ordinance and avoiding losing in court.

"(Lirot) can live in his fantasy world if he wants, if that makes him feel okay," Leduc said. "But the reality bumps into the fantasy world, because the reality is that they gutted their own ordinance."

But the county left intact the residential restrictions, which continue to bar offenders from living in 48 percent of the county, including all of its cities and most of its suburbs. Experts say that making sex offenders' lives harder hampers their rehabilitation, making it more likely they'll reoffend.

Leduc said the amended ordinance may force him to drop two of his plaintiffs from the suit. But he'll still try to challenge the residential component using his remaining client.

The lawyer is also concerned that Pasco's strict law will cause a domino effect, leading other counties to pass their own harsh restrictions. Hillsborough County is currently drafting a law modeled after Pasco's.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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