When It Comes To Sex Offenders, "Close" Just Doesn't Cut It!

Elina B. Gilbert | Wednesday, December 18, 2013 | Community Associations Miscellaneous

A South Carolina homeowners association recently learned an expensive lesson when it comes to making representations that one of its owners is a registered sex offender—an $890,000 lesson

The South Carolina registered sex offender registry identified William James King as a sex offender convicted of committing a lewd act upon a child.  The registry also contained a photo of the offender and physical description.  Certain board members circulated the sex offender listing around the community and represented that William James King, Jr., an owner in the community, was that very sex offender.

Owners that new William James King, Jr. explained this was not the same the person, but the board members continued to distribute the flyers and make the representation.  As one might imagine, William James King, Jr. sued the association, and during trial it came to light that not only was he the wrong man, but he didn’t even have a criminal record.  The jury awarded William James King Jr. $550,000 in actual damages and $340,000 in punitive damages, for a grand total of $890,000.

What’s the lesson to be learned here?  One lesson is to never make representations concerning owners’ or residents’ sex offender status.    Although it is acceptable to refer owners to the sex offender registries and other public information sites, it is not okay to go beyond this.

What are your thoughts on this issue?  Should associations ever do anything beyond referring owners to sex offender informational sites?

Comments

Your advice is spot-on. The registry is available publicly, even online. But the one I see also has addresses and even maps of where these folks reside, so I guess I'm a little lost as to how this HOA got it wrong. And we must also be careful not to over-react. These people do need to live somewhere, and they are not all guaranteed to re-offend. I think the idea is just to exercise due vigilance, but otherwise leave them alone. We used to have one living here, in our community, in fact, right next to a board member. I grappled with informing her, but ultimately chose not to. Eventually she found out on her own, and there was never a problem, so I guess this was handled correctly. In the end, I think the HOA duty would be this: Telling owners that there is always a possibility that an convicted felon may reside in this, or any other, community, and, if this concerns them they should view the various registries or contact the appropriate authorities. This article reminds me of what happened with voting registrations in Florida in 1999 & 2000, when the Secretary of State struck from the rolls anyone who had the same name as a convicted felon. Willie Harris was the most-common name rejected, but a reasonable person would also have tried to match dates of birth. Thousands of people showed up at the polls, only to find out they could not vote, and most of them were not felons. And we all know how that turned out! By the way a big "THANKS" for making the secret code easier to read!

This subject came up at an educational event my firm sponsored. An attendee was a board member who had recently become aware that a registered sex offender had moved into the community. While he was reluctant to name the party, he was equally reluctant to say nothing and risk harm to his community. I always have an attorney in the room, thank goodness. The attorney suggested that the association make the membership aware of the sex offender registry in a written notice. Nothing more. Period. The thinking was that most folks would realize that the association would not bring this registry to their attention if it were not important. I felt this was a good approach.

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