Court Says Being Homeless Is Not a Crime

By: Gerri L. Elder

Being homeless is a very unfortunate problem that many Americans face. Homeless people have many challenges to face each day, with some being tougher to overcome than others.

On October 27, a ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court relieved some homeless people of a serious problem. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the court declared that the provision of the sex-offender registry law that has been criticized for making homelessness a crime is unconstitutional.

Georgia’s state sex-offender registry law is one of the most stringent in the nation. The law made it a crime for a sex offender not to have a home because the homeless are unable to register a specific address with the local sheriff’s office.

The sex offender registry law was passed to keep sex offenders out of areas where children generally gather or play and to keep the public informed of where they live. Sex offenders are required to register and keep their information current or face criminal charges for failing to do so.

State Representative David Ralston, chairman of the House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee, said he thinks that Georgia residents will find it disturbing that homeless sex offenders are now exempt from registration, but he believes that the law will be easy to correct. Ralston is considering a recommendation that homeless sex offenders be required to regularly check in at their local sheriff’s offices, in lieu of providing a stable home address.

In the 6-1 Georgia Supreme Court decision, the justices said that the sex offender registry law is vague and provides no direction for homeless sex offenders who are unable to provide a street or route address. Since the law does not address this problem, it forced homeless offenders to craft their own theories as to how they might comply with the law’s reporting provisions.

The opinion, written by Justice Hugh Thompson, also said that the lack of direction for homeless sex offenders “leads to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement” and that the registration requirements are “unconstitutionally vague.”

Thompson was careful to point out that the court was “by no means holding that all homeless sex offenders are exempt from the statute’s reporting requirements.”

The case came to the Supreme Court after convicted sex offender William James Santos was charged in Hall County, Georgia for failing to register a new address in the sex-offender registry. Because this failure to register would have been Santos’ second offense, he was facing a mandatory life sentence.

The Georgia sex-offender registry law requires sex offenders to report his or her new address within 72 hours after being released from police custody or jail or after moving to a new address.

While living at the Good News at Noon homeless shelter in Gainesville, Georgia, Santos provided the shelter’s address on the registry. However, he was forced to leave the shelter in July 2006. Having no home and no address, Santos could not comply with the sex-offender registry law.

In October 2006, he was arrested and indicted for his failure to register an address. He spent a year in jail awaiting trial and another year while the case worked its way through the criminal justice system to the Georgia Supreme Court. His criminal defense attorney says that he should be released soon.