The County Where Businesses Can Self-Identify As Parks in Order to Keep Sex Offenders Away
"There's currently no way for me to even know where that buffer zone is."
In 2020, an ordinance in Brevard County, Florida, permitted a business to certify itself as a place where children congregate—the moral equivalent of a park—thereby making it a crime for anyone on the sex offense registry to venture inside, or loiter nearby. The idea, apparently, was to make kids even safer from danger.
But, "proximity" laws prohibiting sex offenders from public places like playgrounds have not been shown to make kids any safer, says Emily Horowitz, a sociologist who researches sex offense law and policy.
At the same time, under this law, people on the registry have no way of knowing which businesses have self-certified themselves as child-gathering places. That means registrants don't know which establishments they are barred from entering, or even going near. But if they get too close, they are violating their registration requirements, which could land them in prison.
"Protecting children from harm is a goal shared by all, but this law does nothing to advance that goal," says Sandy Rozek, communications director for the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws. "It is a 'feel-good' law, not a 'do-good' law."
Even before the self-certification law, Brevard registrants were required to stay at least 1,000 feet away from parks, playgrounds, schools, and daycare centers. But since the self-certification provision took effect, registrants have felt compelled to bring the matter before county commissioners and explain how it hampers their ability to live in society.
Merely attending a meeting of the county commissioners is impossible, however, as Brevard's Government Center is less than 1,000 feet from a high school, making it a crime for anyone on the registry to enter the building.
Two years ago, when the self-certifying ordinance was first proposed, friends and family members of registrants spoke on their behalf at a public meeting, asking the commission not to pass it.
Only Bryan Lober, the commission chair, voted against the law. As he noted at the time, "It's a little troubling that we can't have folks here who this is going to directly impact."
After the law passed, the Florida Justice Institute filed a lawsuit saying it infringed on the right of citizens to air their grievances. In March of 2022, the commissioners finally modified the code just enough to permit people on the registry to attend a meeting. (The lawsuit is ongoing.)
At that meeting, held this May, the registrants explained how the new law impacts their daily lives.
Vincent Rinaldi told the commissioners that he had needed to get a document notarized at his bank, but couldn't go inside because it's near a park. He is also the sole caregiver for his life partner, who is sick and in a wheelchair. While the original ordinance made everyday life trying, the newest one makes life almost impossible. "There's currently no way for me to even know where that buffer zone is," said Rinaldi at the meeting.
Rinaldi's partner testified that he "cannot bring me to medical appointments, cannot bring me to CVS, cannot bring me to my medical equipment provider, because they're all within a thousand feet of a school playground, park, or day care center." She fears that if Rinaldi ever has to take her to the hospital, he will be arrested.
Charles Violi, also a registrant—due to an arrest 22 years ago—worries that if he accidentally enters, or even goes near, an off-limits business, he will be violating the ordinance and end up in prison.
Sentences for violating registry requirements can last for years. And yet, Violi said, "There are no maps or lists of locations that tell me if I am too close to restricted areas."
The self-certification law stipulates that while the county "will attempt to ensure" that the list of no-go establishments is up to date, it nonetheless "makes no express or implied guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of any information or data on the registry."
One thing that does not seem to have gone into the making of this law is a look at the actual recidivism rates of those on the registry. It's among the lowest for all offenses: about 5 percent, and nearly zero more than ten years after the original offense.
That may look like the registration is working at preventing child exploitation. But in fact, it doesn't move the needle at all, according to multiple studies comparing the rates of sex offense before and after implementation of public registries.
The men testifying—two of them veterans—said they asked only to be treated like other people who had done their time and then been allowed to go about their lives. Commissioner John Tobia, sponsor of the ordinance, replied: "Excuse me? Are you saying you're the victim here?"
The contempt "was horrifying," says Horowitz. Testifying about a law that doesn't make kids safer, whose "sole purpose is to inflict endless punishment," she said, isn't self-pity. It's protected by the First Amendment.