Notify Residents About Sex Offender at Site
Nowadays, it's all too common to hear reports of sex offenders occupying subsidized housing units. The question you face as a site owner or manager is what you should do if you learn that a sex offender is living at your site.
In some states, courts have barred sex offenders from living in public housing projects under any circumstances. For example, a resident of a New York City public housing site let her godson, a Level III sex offender, share occupancy of her unit. When the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) learned of this, it sought to terminate her tenancy on the ground that she had endangered the health and safety of neighbors at the site. A hearing officer determined that the resident should be permitted to remain in the unit if the godson moved out.
The resident sued to change the determination so that the godson could visit, but not occupy the unit, which NYCHA opposed. The court ruled in favor of NYCHA, reasoning that if visitation were allowed, NYCHA would have to decide how many overnight stays would constitute occupancy. The New York Supreme Court's Appellate Division decided that prohibiting the godson from visiting the unit would be a clearer ruling, more easily enforceable, and more likely to protect other site residents and their families [In re Fannie Gilmore v. Hernandez, New York, May 2007].
If you, as an owner or manager of a tax credit site, are tipped off that a sex offender is residing in one of your units, your first instinct may be to warn other residents of his or her presence. But if the tip is found to be wrong after the false accusation was made, you could be sued for slander or libel. And even if the tip is accurate, disclosing it might violate state law.
However, if you don't warn residents at your site and one of them is molested by the sex offender, the victim could sue you.
Proceed with care when you learn that a sex offender is living at your site, says affordable housing consultant A.J. Johnson, an expert in HUD rules. He suggests that you take the following four steps to warn residents, when appropriate, about a sex offender's presence:
1. Corroborate the information;
2. Consult an attorney about local disclosure law;
3. Assess the threat level posed by the offender; and
4. Inform residents about a high-risk offender's presence.
Step #1: Corroborate the Information
If you hear that a sex offender is living at your site, don't assume it's true. Instead, you must seek to confirm the accuracy of the claim. If you defame a resident by making false statements, you become vulnerable to a lawsuit for defamation of character.
If the initial information you were given came directly from an official source, such as the local police, you need not confirm it. However, if the information came from someone who said that it appeared on a state sex offender registry, or from someone who spoke to the police, make sure you confirm it. Even if you believed the statement to be true but repeated it with reckless disregard of its accuracy, you could be found liable in court if the victim showed that the efforts you made to verify the statement were inadequate.
Therefore, confirm the accuracy of information about the presence of a sex offender before talking about it to other residents at your site. The best way is through your local police or your state's sex offender registry. Many states have sex offender registry Web sites, though the information provided on those sites varies from state to state and may depend on how dangerous the state perceives the sex offender to be.
For example, New York's sex offender registry Web site shows photographs of the most dangerous offenders, describes their offenses, and lists their exact addresses. But the Web site discloses less information about low-risk offenders.
Step #2: Discuss State Law on Disclosure with Attorney
Laws differ by state about when and if information about sex offenders may be disclosed to the public. For example, some states allow such information to be shared freely, whereas others prohibit it from being shared. Whether information on sex offenders can be shared depends largely on the degree to which the particular state considers the offender to be a threat. By asking an attorney about your state's laws, you will be able to determine whether it's appropriate for you to warn other residents about the presence of a sex offender at your site.
Step #3: Assess Threat Level Posed by Offender
You should determine the level of threat that a sex offender poses at your site—to the extent possible—but don't make an independent determination, Johnson says. Instead, refer to the state law enforcement's threat levels. In many states, sex offenders are categorized according to the risk that they will reoffend. Level 1 is usually considered low risk; Level 2, moderate risk; and Level 3, high risk.
However, not all states categorize sex offenders according to their danger to society. States that don't classify them by level of threat posed make it more difficult to assess the danger. If you operate a site in one of those states, the best approach is to work closely with your site's attorney in deciding how to proceed.
Step #4: Inform Residents About High-Risk Offender's Presence
If the level of threat posed by the sex offender warrants disclosure, and state law does not prohibit it, you may wish to draft and photocopy a statement for distribution to residents warning them of the sex offender's presence at the site. Johnson suggests that you make the following points in your statement:
Disclose general information about sex offender. Inform residents that you have been made aware that someone living at the site is considered a sex offender by the state, but don't give out details. Doing so could open a legal angle, making you vulnerable to liability. A government agency is the more appropriate source of detailed information for residents who want to know more about the level of threat posed by the sex offender living at your tax credit site.
Tell residents how to learn more. Encourage residents to contact the appropriate government agency to familiarize themselves with the level of threat that this person might pose. And tell them that by so doing, they can get more information about this particular person. For instance, if your state has a sex offender registry Web site, give residents the address for that Web site. Or suggest that they call the local police for more information.
Warn residents it is illegal to harass offenders. Tell residents that you are disclosing this information so they can protect themselves and their loved ones, not for purposes of retaliation. If the law in your state says that it is illegal to intimidate, harass, or threaten an offender, or otherwise misuse the information about a sex offender, point this out to residents.
Advise residents to learn how to stay safe. Tell residents that they should seek information on how to protect their children—and themselves—when living in proximity to a sex offender. For example, refer them to relevant Web sites or to the local police. If you keep helpful information in the management office, invite residents to come in and review it.
Explain limits of your authority. Tell your residents that you are not authorized to evict the offender from the site or to provide police protection or other security beyond that which you already provide. Stress that residents are responsible for their own and their children's safety, and that the local police department is available for responding to any suspicious activity they may witness.
A.J. Johnson: A.J. Johnson Consulting Services, Inc., 3521 Frances Berkeley, Williamsburg, VA 23188; (757) 259-9920; firstname.lastname@example.org.