FORT MYERS, Fla. – Sexual offenders and predators in Florida are required to register their internet information, including emails and social media accounts, with their probation officers, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and their local sheriff’s office.
But doing more, such as banning them from social media, is something lawmakers say is easier said than done.
“I think (Florida’s registration requirements) struck the balance we were trying to achieve so that we could monitor the activity to make sure nothing inappropriate was happening, but at the same time, allow them to re-start, start re-integrating into society and be able to use social media and the internet like everyone else does,” said Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-Fort Myers). “Otherwise, they would be put in a very difficult position to reintegrate into society.”
A WINK News investigation found at least 13 offenders in Lee County who have not registered their social media accounts with authorities, which resulted in criminal investigations by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
If convicted, an offender can face up to five years in prison.
While FDLE has records of every sex offender and predator in the state, the agency did not have a list that included their online accounts until WINK News asked for it.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office is the only Southwest Florida agency with a dedicated sexual predator offender unit, but the unit’s four detectives spend the majority of their time knocking on the doors of the county’s nearly 800 sex offenders and predators to validate their listed home addresses, which they say helps determine if an offender has registered their social media information.
But the agency doesn’t monitor their social media accounts unless they receive information prompting an investigation.
Sex offenders and predators on probation must also hand over their social media passwords to their probation officers, but the state Department of Corrections said officers can’t log into a probationer’s account due to lack of training and resources.
“The department partners with local law enforcement agencies’ forensic and computer crime units to conduct computer and electronic device searches when reasonable suspicion exists,” the department said in a statement.
Fitzenhagen described the lack of monitoring as the result of an imperfect system.
“As with all new laws, sometimes it takes a little while to make sure all the little problems that may be inherent in a new law can be managed,” she said. “So I think perhaps more staffing, different computer systems, I’m not sure what will take place that will enable them to fully and completely enforce this law. But I know that steps are being taken.”
Other states have taken more severe action regarding sex offenders on social media, including North Carolina, which banned offenders from using such. Their 2008 measure was overturned by the N.C. Court of Appeals, then reversed by the N.C. Supreme Court in a Nov. 2015 split decision.
Indiana passed a similar law in 2008 but was overturned in 2013 by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because it “broadly prohibits substantial protected speech rather than specifically targeting the evil of improper communications to minors,” according to media reports.
A federal judge in 2009 blocked provisions of Nebraska’s sex offender registry law that prevented offenders from using social media sites and required them to have their computers and electronic communication devices monitored and open to searches, according to media reports.
After Louisiana’s law was struck down in 2012, lawmakers passed a measure requiring sex offenders to disclose their status on social media accounts. Not doing so could result in imprisonment with hard labor on first offense, and up to 20 years in prison on second offense.
Florida lawmakers never considered a complete ban, said Fitzenahagen, who added that while Facebook and Twitter have their own rules banning sex offenders and predators, it is up to them to enforce those rules, not lawmakers or law enforcement.
“We do try to walk a fine line between the absolute most important thing, which is to protect victims and potential victims,” she said. “At the same time, if someone has served their time, and they are trying to re-integrate into society, we aren’t going to help ourselves if we make it so difficult for them. We have to strike that balance.”
Fitzenhagen believes lawmakers may take another look at Florida’s law in the future.
“Can we perhaps visit this next year to see if we can make it more stringent,” she asked. “Or we can we look to see if there are programs out there that will be able to monitor this type of activity more closely, I would say yes. Ultimately, we want to make it as safe as possible but this was very very good step in improving upon that.”
Fitzenhagen, along with law enforcement, stressed the importance of parents monitoring their children’s social media activities.
“Part of thing parents need to realize is you are not going to keep your kids offline,” said Greg Scasny, CEO of Cyber security Defense Solutions, a Fort Myers-based cyber security firm. “You really need to talk to them, need to educate them about the dangers of being online.”
Scasny provided a number of tips for parents:
“Best defense to me, you have to educate them, tell them why they need to behave online,” Scasny said.