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Appeal: Sex Offender Law Makes Homelessness a Crime

A strict new Georgia law is designed to keep sex offenders away from children by monitoring how close they live to schools, parks and other spots where kids gather -- and threatens them with strict penalties if they fail to register.

But what about the offenders who don't have an address?

Georgia's Supreme Court on Monday considered whether the law unfairly subjects homeless offenders to a life sentence if they fail register a home address.

The case involves William James Santos, a homeless man and convicted sex offender who was kicked out of a Gainesville homeless shelter in July 2006 and was arrested three months later on charges he failed to register with Georgia's sex offender list.

His lawyers say the law creates a guessing game for Santos and other homeless offenders because it bars them from giving a post office box or simply saying they are homeless.

They also argue that homeless offenders will become a prime target for the measure's tough criminal penalties, which call for a mandatory life in prison sentence for offenders who fail to register their address for a second time.

"These sex offenders, unfortunate enough to have no street address, are subject to life in prison," said Adam Levin, an attorney for Santos. "This gives Mr. Santos and every other sex offender with no address no other right but to fail to comply with the law."

Prosecutors warn that allowing offenders to mark themselves as homeless risks defeating the purpose of the measure. It could "invite sex offenders to not enter a lease, not purchase a property, to declare themselves homeless," said assistant district attorney Vanessa Sykes.

Sykes also contended the law can be interpreted to give the homeless some leeway to mark down a temporary address, such as a shelter.

But that can lead to a cumbersome process. The homeless offenders who move from spot to spot every night would have to notify the local sheriff's department each time, she said.

"I guess, practically, sex offenders who are homeless should find places that are near sheriff's offices," offered Justice Carol Hunstein.

"Yes, and I'm sure sheriff's officers would appreciate that," Sykes responded.

The Santos challenge is among a growing number of cases targeting Georgia's sex offender law, which sponsors declared one of the toughest in the nation when it was adopted in 2006.

It bans sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather. That includes schools, churches, parks, gyms, swimming pools or one of the state's 150,000 school bus stops.

Since it was adopted, though, it has been under attack.

The Georgia Supreme Court last week heard arguments targeting the section that mandates a life prison sentence for sex offenders who twice fail to register. A federal lawsuit filed last month claims that a provision banning sex offenders from volunteering at churches is illegal. And federal courts are already considering challenges to provisions that would evict offenders who live near churches and school bus stops.

Santos' attorneys asked the court to declare the law illegal because it amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment." But they told the justices they hope the court's decision will at least give the homeless a "safety valve" to put down a general location, such as a street or a park.

"We're not asking for specific special treatment for the homeless," said Brett Willis, another Santos attorney. "We're just looking for a way to comply."