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ACLU Challenges Miami Law On Behalf Of Homeless Sex Offenders

This encampment under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami, shown in 2008, was cleared out by authorities in 2009. It was home to sex offenders who were unable to find places where they were permitted to live under Miami-Dade County's strict residency law. Although this makeshift community was broken up, homeless sex offenders continue to camp out in other areas of the county. (AP)

Miami-Dade County's sex offender residency restrictions — some of the tightest in the country — drew national attention a few years ago when an encampment of sex offenders sprang up on a causeway in Biscayne Bay. After a public outcry, local and state authorities evicted several dozen people, mostly men, from that makeshift settlement.

But the restrictions remained, banning offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school. With few options, offenders still often sleep in cars, tents and in the open. The ACLU is now challenging that law, and the way it's been enforced in Miami, with a lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of the sex offenders.

Going Underground

Many of the offenders who were evicted from the Julia Tuttle Causeway now spend their nights at another location instead, near train tracks in a warehouse district north of Miami's airport. On a recent night, about two dozen men were there — some in cars, some sitting in folding chairs and some stretched out on blankets on the loading dock of a nearby warehouse.

One of the men was a 26-year-old who declined to give his name, as he is listed in Florida's registry of sex offenders and concerned he could become a target. He's been living outside here for more than a year, since he was released from prison and had a conversation with his probation officer.

"They asked me, 'Do I have a place to stay?' I sat there and explained it to them," he says. "This family member, this family member, this family member — I can't stay with them, because this family member, 'Stay this amount of feet from the school,' and this family member I'd stay at is a day care or something, and this family member has minors staying in the house."

Under Miami-Dade County's law, anyone convicted of a sex offense involving a child is banned from living within 2,500 feet of a school. That excludes almost every neighborhood in the county.

Florida's Department of Corrections says its probation officers don't direct sex offenders to the railroad tracks or any other location. The department says it's the offender's responsibility to locate a residence; probation officers then make sure it complies with the law.

Brandon Buskey of the ACLU believes the law is too harsh and that it's applied in an arbitrary manner. As an example, he points to a mobile home park where many of Miami's sex offenders were living. Police evicted them after it was determined it was too close to a youth shelter. Later, police decided the shelter didn't qualify as a school and they allowed many to return.

Buskey says this has left many uncertain where they can stay: "It really leaves people with no other option but to go underground and live in places like these railroad tracks."

Safety Concerns On Both Sides

Buskey says the sex offender encampments raise issues of safety and sanitation. And forcing sex offenders into homelessness, he says, increases the chances they'll end up back in prison.

"That makes it harder to find a job. That makes it harder to do a number of things that you need to do to make your life secure and to re-enter successfully," Buskey says. "And that only increases the odds that you are going to commit some other crime — not another sexual offense but another crime in service of trying to simply survive."

The ACLU filed suit in federal court seeking to have Miami-Dade County's law overturned. It's in many ways a continuation of a legal battle last joined five years ago, when a state judge upheld the restrictions.

Ron Book, a prominent lobbyist who was involved in crafting Miami-Dade's sex offender law, is confident it will also stand up to scrutiny of the federal courts.

"Lawmakers have the right to protect the health, safety and welfare under the Constitution of law-abiding citizens," Book says. "And in this case, the law-abiding citizens' health, safety and welfare is paramount, not those that have been convicted of committing sexually deviant crimes."

Book, who is also chairman of Miami-Dade's Homeless Trust, concedes a semi-permanent colony of homeless sex offenders is not ideal. But it's a problem he maintains that was created not by the law but by the sex offenders' behavior — and so far, the courts and Miami-Dade lawmakers have agreed.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Each night in Miami, a couple of dozen men sleep in cars, tents and out in the open near train tracks in a warehouse district. They're sex offenders, and they're there because county law bans them from living within 2,500 feet of a school. And today, a lawsuit was filed on their behalf. NPR's Greg Allen reports the ACLU is challenging the residency law and the way it's being enforced.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Miami-Dade County's residency restrictions - some of the tightest in the country - drew national attention a few years ago when an encampment of sex offenders sprang up on a causeway in Biscayne Bay. After a public outcry, local and state authorities evicted several dozen - mostly men - from that makeshift settlement. Now many spend their nights here instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

ALLEN: It's near train tracks in a warehouse district north of Miami's airport. On a recent night, about two dozen men were there - some in cars, some sitting in folding chairs and some stretched out on blankets on the loading dock of a nearby warehouse. One of the men was a 26-year-old who declined to give his name. He's listed in Florida's registry of sex offenders and concerned he could become a target. He's been living outside here for more than a year, since he was released from prison and had a conversation with his probation officer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They asked me, do I have a place to stay? I sat there and explained it to them. This family member, this family member, this family member - I can't stay with them because this family member stay this amount of feet from a school, and this family member stay at - is a daycare or something, or this family member's got minors staying in the house.

ALLEN: Under Miami-Dade County's law, anyone convicted of a sex offense involving a child is banned from living within 2,500 feet of a school. That excludes almost every neighborhood in the county. Florida's Department of Corrections says, its probation officers don't direct sex offenders to the railroad tracks or any other location. The department says, it's the offender's responsibility to locate a residence. Probation officers then make sure it complies with the law.

Brandon Buskey of the ACLU believes the law is too harsh and that it's applied in an arbitrary manner. As an example, he points to a mobile home park where many of Miami's sex offenders were living. Police evicted them after it was determined it was too close to a youth shelter. Later, police decided the shelter didn't qualify as a school, and they allowed many to return. Buskey says, it's left many uncertain where they can stay.

BRANDON BUSKEY: It really leaves people with no other option but to go underground and live in places like these railroad tracks.

ALLEN: Buskey says, the sex offender encampments raise issues of safety and sanitation. And forcing sex offenders into homelessness, he says, increases the chances they'll end up back in prison.

BUSKEY: That makes it harder to find a job. That makes it harder to do a number of things that you need to do to make your life secure and to reenter successfully. And that only increases the odds that you are going to commit some other crime - not another sexual offense, but another crime in service of trying to simply survive.

ALLEN: The ACLU filed suit in federal court, seeking to have Miami-Dade County's law overturned. It's, in many ways, a continuation of a legal battle last joined five years ago. At that time, a state judge upheld the restrictions. Ron Book is a prominent lobbyist who was involved in crafting Miami-Dade's sex offender law. He's confident it will also stand up to scrutiny of the federal courts.

RON BOOK: Lawmakers have the right to protect the health, safety and welfare under the Constitution of law-abiding citizens. In this case, the law-abiding citizens' health, safety and welfare is paramount - not those that have been convicted of committing sexually deviant crimes.

ALLEN: Book, who's also chairman of Miami-Dade's Homeless Trust, concedes a semi-permanent colony of homeless sex offenders is not ideal. But it's a problem, he maintains, that was created not by the law, but by the sex offenders' behavior. And up to now, the courts and Miami-Dade lawmakers have agreed. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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