Fla. police warn of sex predators with yard signs
18 bright red signs have been erected in front yards of the homes where convicted sex predators live
By Kyle Hightower
STARKE, Fla. — Brian Speer thought he had completed all of his obligations when he registered in Bradford County as a convicted sex predator after serving an eight-year prison sentence for child molestation.
But now, in addition to submitting to a public registry for sex offenders, he has a permanent reminder of his crime posted right in his front yard: a bright red sign reading, "Brian Speer is a convicted Sexual Predator and lives at this location."
The sign is one of 18 the Bradford County Sheriff's Office erected in mid-April outside the homes of convicted sex predators.
The signs have been praised by many residents in the small rural county southwest of Jacksonville, but some question whether the new measure reaches too far and could be harassment against people who have served jail terms and already submit to the public registry. Neighboring Baker County started a similar program six years ago.
"I think it's a lot of bull," said Speer, who was convicted of lewd or lascivious molestation in 2004. "I believe that anybody that has any criminal background should have a sign in front of their house if we have one in front of ours."
Bradford officials say they are working within the discretion afforded by state statutes, which mandate that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement use the Internet to notify the public of all sexual predators and requires that a sheriff or police chief conduct community notification of a sexual predator's presence.
It does not specify how that community notification must take place. It traditionally has been done through fliers, print and television media, and websites, but Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith thought his office could do more.
The federal Sex Offender and Registration Act, passed in 2006, sets minimum standards for sex offender notification across the country. There is no central database to track how agencies notify residents, but counties and towns in other states have tried sign programs with mixed success. Judges have ordered signs to be posted outside the homes of specific sex offenders in cases in Texas, Louisiana and Oregon.
Sign placement also has been shot down. In 2009, a Kansas appeals court overturned a judge's order requiring a sex offender to post signs on both his home and vehicle.
In Bradford County, Smith said that when his chief of jails told him about Baker County's sign program, he jumped at the idea.
Brad Smith, the office's chief of operations, said the sheriff cleared it with the county attorney. The sheriff then floated the idea on social media in March, with an overwhelmingly positive response, and the first signs were posted April 16.
"We realized it was not only a good idea, but something important to ensure that a consistent notification was being made," Brad Smith said. He said residents not living in Bradford County when original notifications go out could be unaware of a sexual predator's presence. With permanent signs, that is less likely.
He also said cost was not an issue: The signs cost $10 each, and inmate labor is used to erect them.
Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson said he is proud of the new program and happy others are adopting it.
"I know the predators are not real fond of it," he said. "I understand, but I think it's important for the community to know where these people live."
The signs are only for sexual predators, not for all sex offenders, Brad Smith said. Florida defines a sexual predator as someone who has been convicted of a first-degree sex crime such as child molestation or sexual battery or has been convicted of two second-degree sex crimes such as solicitation of a minor or lewd, lascivious, or indecent assault. A judge also can designate a person a sex predator.
Bradford County has 98 registered sex offenders, and 18 were predators at the time the signs were erected.
On the Facebook page for the sheriff's office, about 1,000 people combined have "liked" a pair of posts about the new signs.
Mike Rowe, 27, recently moved to Bradford County. He said that though he doesn't have children, he thinks the signs are positive. He said he was "fine with authorities doing whatever they can to notify us where these people live."
Starke resident Rashonda Green, 26, has three children and lives down the street from sexual predator John Goodman, who has two convictions for lewd and lascivious exhibition. She said that because the community is small, most people were already aware of his status and that the sign was an invasion of privacy.
No one answered the phone at a number listed for Goodman.
"I felt embarrassed for him," Green said. "It seems like it's a little too much. Kids living in the neighborhood read (the sign) and are asking questions like `What is a sex predator?' I think he should be able to live in peace at least. It's a little over the top for me."
For now, though, the signs aren't going anywhere.
"If they're a sexual predator, we're not going to sugarcoat it or give anybody any preferential treatment," Brad Smith said. "We're going to put the sign out there."
Copyright 2013 Associated Press