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State Has to Prove Defendant’s Knowledge in Failing to Register as a Sex Offender Cases

After a criminal conviction for certain sex crimes in Florida, the defendant will be forced to register with the local police department initially, and then periodically thereafter, as a sex offender. The registration process involves providing the police with identification and contact information about the person so the police know where he/she can be found at all times. If a person fails to register the first time, or fails to re-register thereafter, he/she may be charged with the crime of failing to register as a sex offender, which is a felony crime in Florida.

However, it is not clear from reading the failure to register as a sex offender statute whether the State has to prove that the defendant knew he/she was obligated to register. In other words, at trial, can the State simply present evidence that the defendant was a sex offender required to register and did not, or does the defendant’s state of mind come into play? In some cases, the defendant can argue that he/she did not know he/she had to register or that he/she thought he/she did register. In most cases, when a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a sex offense that requires registration, he/she will be forced to read and sign paperwork that explains the registration requirement. The probation officer will also explain it to him/her. However, if that is not done, the defendant can argue that he/she did not know about the registration requirement. Likewise, we read of one case where the defendant’s probation officer came to see the defendant around the time he was required to re-register. Based on the comments of the probation officer during that visit, the defendant thought his re-registration requirement for that year was satisfied, and he did not go to the registration office. He was charged with failing to register as a sex offender and was able to use the evidence of the visit from his probation officer and those discussions as a defense to the charge based on his impression that his registration requirement was satisfied.

We believe that the prosecution of a failure to register as a sex offender case is not as simple as proving that the defendant was required to register and failed to do so. Where those elements are proven but there is an argument that the defendant did not know either that he/she had to register or that he/she did not register, there is a valid defense to the crime.