New local rules for sexual predators and offenders were approved by St. Johns County’s Board of County Commissioners Tuesday, following a court ruling last year that struck down part of the county’s previous ordinance.
One change: it will now be illegal for registered sexual predators and offenders to participate in holiday events or practices that involve children outside their own family. Another change: offenders and predators may not alter their appearance in a way that could “entice, attract, or lure” children, including wearing Halloween costumes or Santa suits. The ordinance also outlines types of holiday decorations that can not be displayed at their house.
The amended ordinance also removes previous county language that required signs to be put up in the front yards of sexual predators and offenders before Halloween, after a federal appeals court last year ruled that similar signage requirements were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The case that sparked the change was out of Butts County, Georgia, and the three-judge-panel of the Atlanta court ruled the warning signs were “compelled government speech.”
St. Johns Commissioners this week also voted to expand “safety zone” buffers, where sex offenders and predators are not allowed, from 300 feet to 1,000 feet. That means a sexual predator or offender may not be within 1,000 feet of parks, recreation centers, schools, daycares, arcades, school bus stops while children are there, public libraries, amenity or community centers, and other facilities that are designed to be used by children. Exceptions to the ordinance include when an offender or predator is taking their own child to school, voting or registering to vote, traveling to a government building or a religious service, or if the offender or predator is a minor in school.
The expanded child safety zones do not mean that offenders and predators could be forced out of their homes, according to county spokesperson Wayne Larson.
“The amendments do not address that. It’s simply the safety zone around those areas that were defined in the amendment, so it does not address any relocation of current residential address,” Larson said in an interview with WJCT News 89.9.
The sheriff’s office is responsible for maintaining and distributing a list of safety zones when offenders and predators register with the sheriff’s office. But, the ordinance says, if the sheriff’s office fails to provide a list, that is not a defense for the offender or predator if they are caught within 1,000 feet of one of the zones.
Board of County Commissioners Chair Christian Whitehurst says the additional changes, beyond what was required to comply with federal law, are about child safety.
“These ordinance amendments improve the safety of our community and particularly the well-being of the children living in and visiting St. Johns County. One of the priorities for the Board of County Commissioners is a resilient future for children. We strengthened that future with these stronger ordinances,” Whitehurst said in a news release.
St. Johns County has the lowest rate of registered predators and offenders among Northeast Florida counties, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement and U.S. Census data. St. Johns has 88.6 sexual predators and offenders per 100,000 residents, compared to Duval County’s 241.7 per 100,000 residents; Clay County’s 174.7 per 100,000, Flagler’s 116.8 per 100,000 and Putnam County’s 517.8 per 100,000 residents.
Larson expects the amended ordinances to be filed with the state and officially go into effect by the end of September.