Natural disasters tend to be equalizers – when staring down the acute possibility of a hurricane, everyone needs food, water and shelter, regardless of your standing in life.
But a Florida sheriff is telling certain members of the population in Polk County that they won’t be welcome at shelters in the area, and his statement has spurred controversy as Hurricane Irma barrels towards the state.
The Polk County Sheriff Twitter account tweeted Wednesday that law enforcement officers would be checking IDs at every shelter in the county. The purpose, the account said, was to turn away sexual predators.
The sheriff of Polk County, whose photo is on the Twitter account, is Grady Judd.
Reaction to the statement had two clear sides. Some praised the sheriff for putting law-abiding citizens first, and making sure their children would be protected.
But others criticized the statement, with some saying it was unfair to turn away registered sex offenders who had served their time in jail and others saying it would have a chilling effect for those who had committed minor crimes or are undocumented immigrants who don’t have ID.
Some called the practice illegal, but it’s actually clearly laid out within Polk County codes. While state laws do not prohibit sex offenders from living with a child or minor based on their required registration as a sex offender, county ordinances can provide certain limits on sexual offenders.
“Florida’s sexual offender/predator registration laws do not prohibit offenders/predators from living in certain areas or from sharing a residence with another sexual offender/predator,” the Florida Department of Law Enforcement website reads. “However, there may be municipal and/or county ordinances that outline where sexual offenders/predators can live, who they can or cannot come in contact with, or what areas in a community they can or cannot be near or visit.”
A Polk County ordinance says in plain language that sex offenders are banned from public hurricane shelters.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida spoke out against his language, saying Judd was “exploiting a natural disaster and endangering lives.”
Hurricane Irma is currently a Category 5 storm and is expected to hit Florida by early Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center.