1. Florida Politics

Once a thorn in government's side, First Amendment lawyer Luke Lirot will defend Pasco County's new sex offender ordinance

Luke Lirot has made a career out of fighting city hall.

Now he finds himself working for the other side.

Pasco County has hired Lirot, 59, to help defend its 2015 law restricting where newly registered sex offenders can live.

It's quite the change for Lirot, the Clearwater lawyer who made a name for himself as a First Amendment crusader who went to bat for adult entertainment businesses against the ordinances aimed at shutting them down. Lirot spent years fighting for strip club king Joe Redner and exotic dancers against municipalities like the city of Tampa and Pasco County.

But for the first time in his legal career, Lirot will represent the government — not those fighting it.

"They came to me and asked if I would be interested in assisting them in this case," he said, "and I told them I'd consider it a privilege."

Pasco County's ordinance, passed unanimously in April 2015, bars registered sex offenders whose victims were under the age of 16 from living within 2,500 feet of a school, child care facility, library, park or playground — more than double the state's 1,000-foot restriction.

It prevents those offenders from living in nearly all of Pasco's cities and suburbs, about 48 percent of the county.

Defense attorney Patrick Leduc is suing Pasco County on behalf of his client, Earl Reyes Villagomeza, who pleaded guilty in September to two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation of a teenage girl. Unable to find a suitable place to live in Pasco that complies with the county's restrictive rule, Villagomeza, 31, has been living in a Hillsborough County hotel near the Florida State Fairgrounds.

In the past, Lirot has defended exotic dancers accused of violating Tampa's "6-foot rule" between customers and nude dancers, which made lap dances illegal in the early 2000s. In the late 1990s, he fought a Lakeland city ordinance requiring a 500-foot buffer between adult entertainment businesses and schools, parks, churches and day care centers.

He's even gone head to head against Pasco County over zoning rules governing where adult businesses could operate.

So why is the lawyer who has made a career out of opposing the government now fighting for the government? Everyone is entitled to legal representation, Lirot said, including those who make the law.

"We take an oath as members of the Bar to advance our clients' interest," he said.

He said that if Villagomeza had hired him to challenge the law, he'd have taken that job, too.

"I'm fortunate enough to choose those cases that I find to be intellectually challenging," Lirot said. "There's nothing simple in this case at all."

A First Amendment specialist, Lirot said Pasco's sex offender ordinance is not at all similar to the zoning rules he used to fight that were passed by local governments to restrict adult businesses. The case he brought against Lakeland when he represented an adult bookstore involved protected speech, he said. Under that ordinance, according to Lirot, "There were zero locations for that kind of communication."

But under Pasco's sex offender ordinance, he said, there are still substantial areas within the county available for sex offenders to live — more than the space left available for adult entertainment under local ordinances.

Though this is Lirot's first time representing a municipality, in the past he has helped governments rewrite the ordinances he had challenged during settlement negotiations.

Pasco County officials issued this statement about the hiring of Lirot's firm:

"The County Attorney's Office is vigorously defending the Sex Offender Ordinance and will employ subject matter experts and co-counsel when in the best interest of the County."

Pasco Commissioner Mike Moore proposed the sex offender ordinance to keep children safe, and it's supported by Sheriff Chris Nocco. Some experts say there's no evidence that such ordinances work, and that making the lives of sex offenders harder could cause them to reoffend.

Pasco's new law has triggered a domino effect. Last week, the Hillsborough County Commission voted 7-0 to start drafting a similar law, aimed at keeping Pasco's sex offenders from relocating there.

From Leduc's perspective, Lirot's skills taking down municipal ordinances makes him a formidable opponent. "What Lirot gives to Pasco County is a wealth of experience in this area of the law that exceeds my experience 100-fold," Leduc said.

Still, Leduc hopes to prevail and convince a judge that Pasco's law should be struck down because it's unconstitutionally broad and pre-empted by state law.

"When you combine the facts, when you combine the evidence and when you combine what's right, Pasco County can go out and hire as many attorneys as they want," Leduc said, "I'm still going to win this case."

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