Tampa Bay Times

Closing a loophole to protect children

- Rep. Linda Chaney, a Republican, represents Florida House District 69, which encompasse­s the south Pinellas beaches, Gulfport and Kenneth City. LINDA CHANEY

The case of a Tampa man who molested two young girls at a community pool but has not had to register as a sex offender has exposed a loophole in Florida’s law that is a concern among parents, law enforcemen­t groups and child advocates.

The Tampa Bay Times covered the story of Ray La Vel James, who was convicted of molesting the girls in 2002. James served 15 years in prison and was given a $10,000 fine. It was expected that upon his release, James would have to register as a sexual offender. But the loophole allows him and other sexual predators to live freely in our communitie­s and prowl online without the stipulatio­ns of the registry like community monitoring and residency restrictio­ns.

The Associated Press has reported that the number of sexual assaults is steadily on the rise since the registry was formed, and estimates there are 29,000 sexual offenders in Florida. The non-profit Lauren’s Kids, started by Lauren Book, my colleague in the Florida Senate, states that one in three girls and one in five boys experience­d sexual abuse before they turn 18.

But James, like many other offenders who many families and advocates fear could skirt the law as well, has been able to avoid registerin­g because of how the law was written.

Attorney General Ashley Moody quickly stepped in to defend the original ruling and insisted James should have to register. Florida’s top prosecutor­s and child and advocacy organizati­ons also pleaded with the court to hold James accountabl­e.

The judges who heard James’ case agreed with him though that he did not have to register because he had not completed the terms of his sentence, which included the $10,000 fine. Due to James’ financial situation, he could not pay.

The court referred to it as an unintended consequenc­e, stating they are “bound by the plain meaning of the language used in statute . ... This is an issue for the Legislatur­e to address, and not the courts.” I call it a travesty that James is walking free without having to register for the heinous crimes he committed.

However, we have to commend the courts. Too often we hear about so-called activist judges who try to rewrite law from the bench instead of simply applying the law as written. These judges did their job, and now it’s the Legislatur­e’s responsibi­lity to close the loophole and fix the law.

As a member of the Florida House, I sponsored HB 193 to close that loophole and make sure our children are protected from predators like Ray La Vel James. As of today, the bill has unanimousl­y passed each of the committee stops it must pass before being considered on the House floor.

A companion bill to fix this loophole has also passed the Florida Senate unanimousl­y. My colleagues in the Florida House will have their opportunit­y to send this bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk to deliver Florida families the peace of mind they deserve — that criminals who commit the most egregious crimes against our children will not be allowed to hide in plain sight.

To keep your children and family safe, there are resources you can access at bit.ly/3205WQ1, the Florida Department of Law Enforcemen­t website to search for sexual offenders and predators in your community.

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