Three-time sex offender William James Santos couldn’t register his home with local authorities because he had no home, his lawyers told Georgia’s highest court this week.
Attorneys for the state countered there was no evidence Santos looked for a new place to live, and if he was truly homeless, he could still check in daily with Hall County sheriff’s officials.
The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments in the case of Santos, 53, who faces a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of failing to register as a sex offender for a second time.
Attorneys with the Hall County Public Defender’s Office want Georgia’s sex offender law thrown out because, they say, it violates a person’s right to due process and punishes poor people who can’t find a place to live.
According to a summary of the case provided by the Georgia Supreme Court, Santos was convicted of sex offenses in three separate cases. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Web site shows Santos was convicted of sexual assault in Michigan in 1995.
Santos pleaded guilty in 2005 to failing to register as a sex offender. In 2006, he gave Hall County Sheriff’s officials the address for Good News at Noon, a Gainesville shelter located on Davis Street.
According to the summary, Santos was kicked out of the shelter in July 2006 and never registered another address with officials. The following October, he was arrested and indicted on three counts of failing to register as a sex offender.
Between the time of his first conviction for failure to register and his second arrest, the Georgia legislature increased the penalty of a second conviction to a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Attorneys asked the presiding superior court judge in the case to throw out the indictment. When the judge denied their motion, they appealed to the supreme court, which agreed to hear the case.
Attorneys Adam Levin and Brett Willis, the public defenders representing Santos, argued in briefs filed with the court that imprisoning homeless sex offenders who are "unavoidably homeless" violates the U.S. and state constitutions as cruel and unusual punishment. It also violates a state prohibition against legislation that regards a citizen’s social status, Santos’ attorneys argued.
Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh and Assistant District Attorney Vanessa Sykes argued in the state’s brief that Santos could be entitled to an acquittal in a trial if evidence shows he made an effort to find a new home and failed. Prosecutors say there is no evidence any effort was made.
The state also argued that the law does not address situations where a sex offender has no permanent house. A homeless person could list a street or park, prosecutors argued, or comply with the law by checking in with sheriff’s officials daily.
The court will rule on the case at a later date.
The justices must decide:
- Whether the current sex offender registry law constitutes a denial of due process by criminalizing an "impossible act" for a person who is homeless.
- Whether punishing someone like Santos for a maximum of life in prison or a minimum of ten years constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
- Whether the law is void because of vagueness.
- Whether the law violates Georgia’s constitutional prohibition against making a person’s social status the subject of legislation by singling out homeless people as the only individuals who have no means of full compliance.