Andrew Flaherty, new to Florida, could not escape the feeling he had moved to a unwelcoming place. He was often treated with a dismissive brusqueness, particularly at businesses where he was asked to produce an ID.
Occasionally., clerks looked at his newly issued Florida identification card and, with no explanation, told him they couldn’t help him. “I had to go to three pharmacies before I could find someone to fill my prescriptions,” Flaherty recalled. Not an inconsequential problem for the Jacksonville resident, who suffers from chronic heart problems and debilitating health complications from his Type I diabetes.
Flaherty, 48, who moved to Florida last year from Louisiana, found himself beset by a vague paranoia. “I [was] having problem after problem. Goodness gracious. It was happening every time I walked into a place.”
It happened again on March 9. Flaherty and his brother stopped at the guardhouse outside the Jacksonville naval base and presented their identification cards.
The guard studied Flaherty’s ID and ordered the brothers to park the car. Thirty-five minutes later, two police cars drove up. Flaherty was told that his state ID card included a designation that he was registered sexual offender. Which made his attempt to enter the navy base a crime.
“I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ I kind of freaked out.”
But there it was, in print barely discernible to Flaherty, who is legally blind, on the bottom right corner of the Florida ID card issued by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles back on Oct. 31 — “943.0435, F.S,” the statute number designating a convicted sex offender.
Police checked his criminal record, which came back clean. Just a clerical error. A clerk in the DHSMV office apparently clicked the wrong box. Maybe he meant to hit “legally blind.” Instead, he labeled Flaherty a social pariah.
Flaherty kept thinking of all those places where he had unwittingly slandered his own reputation. “Coming from out of state, you have to show an ID everywhere. At hospitals, banks, pharmacies. And people who take IDs, they know what that number means.”
Few misidentifications are so damning as “sex offender.” Erroneous entries on sex-offender registries, wrong names or wrong addresses, have led to serious problems. In Dallas, vigilantes nearly killed an innocent mentally disabled man living at an erroneous address on the Texas sex-offender registry. Similar incidents have been reported in Indiana and New Jersey.
“I know what can happen to somebody supposed to be a sex offender,” said Flaherty, who worked as a prison guard in Louisiana before his health failed him.
He got himself a new ID, but wonders how he can repair his reputation. “How do I go back and tell those businesses and my neighbors that I’m not a sex offender.”
“You’ve got to wonder how many others this has happened to,” said his lawyer, John Phillips, who has demanded an official apology from the state. Who, Phillips wondered, would even notice that innocuous “943.0435, F.S.” on his driver’s license? Such a small error with such unhappy ramifications.