Tracking sex offenders: good idea in theory, practice proves difficult

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 10:05pm
David Felts Main.jpg
David Felts

Once per week, Metro Nashville Police Department detectives Maria Sexton and David Elliott work their way down a list of addresses, knocking on doors throughout the city.

They aren’t looking for active criminals or trying to sniff out gang activity. Sexton and Elliott are specifically on the hunt for sex offenders.

In Tennessee, sex offenders are required by law to provide information on their whereabouts to local law enforcement agencies. But sometimes, that doesn’t happen.

Davidson County is home to 1,700 registered sex offenders. There are more sex offenders per capita in Davidson County (1 of 363) than Shelby County (1 of 430) and Knox County (1 of 797). (The numbers can partly be attributed to the three state prisons located in Metro Nashville city limits.)

As part of the MNPD’s sex crimes unit, Sexton and Elliott are the driving force behind doling out sex offender registration violations. In 2011, the duo was primarily responsible for issuing 385 warrants on sex offenders who lied about where they lived, who they lived with or just never reported. Overall, there were 499 arrests for registration violations in the county.

And while the MNPD tries to stay ahead of the curve, the system has its holes.



David Felts, 36, stood before federal judge Todd J. Campbell in Nashville on Feb. 28, 2011, and pleaded his case during a sentencing hearing for violation of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.

“You know, my biggest regret is that I lost a lot of family during the time that I was incarcerated. You know, 15 years, it is a long time to do,” Felts said, according to the court transcript. “I was young, stupid kid, you know. Done stupid things. I am not here going to make excuses for the things that I have done.”

In 1994, Felts was convicted of rape of a child and sexual battery, painting him with the charred label of “sex offender” for the rest of his life. At his court appearance in Nashville, he was appearing on a federal charge of failing to comply with the Sex Offender Registration law in Tennessee.

According to prosecutors, Felts attempted to dodge the law after being caught with his then-girlfriend and her child at Northeast Elementary School in Cookeville — a clear violation of the rules for sex offenders.

After failing to appear for sex offender registration violations in Cookeville, Felts moved to Nashville with his girlfriend and her young daughter. He lied to Metro police and told them he was homeless, according to a police affidavit.

MNPD investigated and eventually issued two warrants against Felts for violating conditions of the sex offender registry by living with his girlfriend and her 5-year-old in a Madison trailer park. The trailer park manager showed an MNPD detective that Felts signed a rental agreement. Another warrant was issued because Felts lied about his place of employment.

Shortly thereafter, Felts left town.

“Your Honor has read that they went to Florida with this minor child. [Felts] was with his girlfriend, the victim’s mother,” assistant U.S. Attorney Lynne Ingram said in court. “Then they fled to Puerto Rico. And I say fled.”

Felts was arrested in Puerto Rico and returned to Middle Tennessee in December 2010. Campbell sentenced him to two years in prison.

But soon, Felts’ alleged crimes went from a matter of administrative sidestepping to disturbing abuse.

In April 2011, a Davidson County grand jury indicted Felts on six charges of child rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery against his girlfriend’s child.

Because of the sensitive nature of the case, details aren’t available on how those additional charges were discovered. However, representatives from the Nashville Children’s Alliance and the state’s Department of Children Services were subpoenaed for the case.

The alliance provides services to children who have been sexually abused — and works in conjunction with the MNPD and law enforcement to convict offenders.

“There is a referral made to the Department of Children Services about a child that has been sexually or physically abused. The DCS case manager then asks for one of our forensic interviewers, who are specially trained in interviewing in a non-leading, legally defensible, age appropriate way,” alliance President June Turner said.

She added that children are often sexually abused by people they know rather than strangers, further emphasizing the importance of tracking sex offenders.

“Most of the time, the abuser is known to the child. It may be a dad, a mom, a grandparent, a cousin … or a neighbor,” Turner said. “As a society, we are much more comfortable thinking it’s a stranger. It’s much easier to educate our children about a stranger than it is about [someone you know].”



One of the main facets of Felts’ case had to do with his registering as homeless in Nashville. It seems like an obvious loophole in the system — tell law enforcement officials that you’re homeless, then proceed to live wherever you want.

According to a registry search, there are more than 50 sex offenders registered as homeless in downtown Nashville — and 40 of them committed violent sex crimes.

But the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, along with the federal government, has attempted to come up with ways to track homeless offenders.

“If somebody has reported previously, said they are homeless, then they usually have to give a brief description of where they are living,” TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said. “If they establish residence, they need to register change of address.”

In addition to that measure, state law requires homeless sex offenders to check in with law enforcement once a month at their offices in downtown Nashville, rather than once every six months.

But is it enough?

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law to address the need for beefed-up tracking of homeless offenders.

“By the authority established in § 40-39-206(f), the TBI shall develop tracking procedures for the continued verification and tracking of these offenders in the interest of public safety,” the law reads.

Helm said the TBI modified its software to include more ways to track homeless offenders last year.

“If someone is registering as homeless, those [local] agencies gather additional information for them and put that into the software. So there is a little more information gathered on homeless offenders than offenders who actually establish a residence,” Helm said.

“So maybe a police officers knows … a registered sex offender and sees him somewhere where he hasn’t seen him recently, they can tell the reporting agency, and there is additional space [for that] on our software.”

The additional information provided by the software is available only to law enforcement, not the general public.

MNPD spokeswoman Kristin Mumford, however, said she wasn’t aware of the department using that software.

In 2008, the federal government sponsored a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that examined the use of GPS devices to track sex offenders.

“A sex offender’s alibi may be supported or discredited using GPS data. This information could assist law enforcement agencies with verifying sex offender registration information, such as residential or employment address, and locating noncompliant sex offenders and absconders,” the report reads.

In 2006, 22 states instituted a form of GPS tracking for varying classifications of sex offenders, according to the report. Six states require lifetime electronic monitoring for sex offenders.

But the report also points out several disadvantages to using GPS, including an increased police workload, lack of empirical evidence and key legal issues.

It’s not clear whether GPS tracking would prevent cases like Felts’ from happening. Nor can law enforcement keep a constant eye on every sex offender in Nashville.

“Outside of having someone assigned to a person and following them every place, the options are tough,” Mumford said.

The MNPD says it will continue to pound the pavement in search of violators, but there’s no clear answer on how to seal the cracks of an expansive system.





How the state has tightened sex offender restrictions

In the last legislative session, six different sex offender regulations were passed into Tennessee law. The laws:

• Prohibit registered sex offenders from operating an ice cream truck

• Restrict “reasonable access” to local libraries for sex offenders

• Require sex offenders in halfway houses and prisons to register

The TBI has a general counsel who serves as a liaison with the state legislature when it comes to drafting sex offender laws.

That general counsel “is the one who made application to the SORNA [Sex Offender Registration and Notification] Office in Washington, D.C., to get Tennessee’s registry in compliance with federal standards,” TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said. “We don’t sponsor the legislation, but we’ll work with the legislators … who are interested in strengthening the sex offender laws.”

Helm said she doesn’t expect any major legislation changes this session.

“The big push would be to come into federal compliance, which we are now. There’s not going to be large sweeping changes, like we’ve seen in the last several years,” she said.

7 Comments on this post:

By: spooky24 on 1/9/12 at 5:18

I can give you an easy way to improve the system. The list is too broad and fails to separate violent offenders from people who simply made a mistake. To put an 18 year old who was caught with his 17 year old girlfriend on the same list as known pedophiles is just stupid.
I tracked the 52 members on the list in my area and only 9 had ever committed a violent crime. The rest were a blend of prostitution related crimes and underage consensual sex charges.
The registry is poorly, poorly designed and fails to meet even the most basic criteria that other states have. For instance, Alabama's list will link the searcher to a complete list of charges, warrants, arrest history and the outcome of the trial process for which the person was accused.
Of course, the 'sex offenders list' is a political buzzword and attention getter that seems to exist just to put as many individuals on it as possible for political reasons. Protection of the community is not as important as being able to say " I put 110 more on the sexual offender list vote for me.
There are plenty more ways to improve the system however I know I'm wasting my time here-nothing is going to change.


By: Little Dummy on 1/9/12 at 11:19

The reporter needs to check addresses against the zip codes some of the
offenders give. For example they'll put zip 37212 when they actually
live in 37221. That way, if you check 37221 (Bellevue) they will actually
be living in 37212 (Music Row-Belmont area.)

By: ShanaRowan on 1/9/12 at 2:54

I think they just answered their own question.

"Most of the time, the abuser is known to the child. It may be a dad, a mom, a
grandparent, a cousin … or a neighbor,” Turner said. “As a society, we are much more comfortable thinking it’s a stranger. It’s much easier to educate our children about a stranger than it is about [someone you know].”

OK, if they can grasp that...then why in the same article is it being suggested that GPS monitoring and library restriction would be an effective measure for registered sex offenders?

The recidivism rates for sex offenders are between 3.5-8.5%, notably lower than virtually every other felony. The majority of registered offenders are first-time offenders and will not commit another crime. But perhaps most importantly, children are 93-95% more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they know, who has never been convicted of a sex crime, and therefore not on any registry. (All of this information is verifiable through the US Dept of Justice and hundreds of other government-backed studies).

Why, then, if we have this knowledge, do legislators and law enforcement continue to ignore it and pass laws that target the population that is arguably the LEAST dangerous to a community? These laws blatantly fail 95% of current and future victims!

Here's a novel idea: remove the majority of registrants from the registry. Keep only those who are diagnosed pedophiles or violent offenders who have shown high risk of re-offense as verified by a NEUTRAL mental health professional not affiliated with the state or federal government. Call out legislators who exploit the well-being of children under the farce of sex crime laws. Force them to acknowledge the facts. Until then, we'll be no safer than we were before the registry.

By: redrum on 1/9/12 at 3:19

Well... actually the whole premise of this article is incorrect. Sex offender and other registries are nothing more than a money drain on the state and local governments that give a false sense of security to the public.

A study by the Federal Department of Justice was done in New Jersey "home" of Megan's Law which started this whole registry business has found some interesting facts. The use of registries have not led to any reduction in sex crimes and no crime has ever been solved or prevented in the United States by the use of the Sex Offender registry.

Read the federal report and follow it's links about other states here:

One of the reasons for this is that the registry idea is built upon lies or false perceptions. The laws "assume" that there is a high rate of recidivism among sex offenders and that sex offenders prey on the general public, neither of which are true.

Both the Justice Department and the State of Tennessee have shown that sex offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of all offenders, except murders, by a very large margin. Read the Tennessee Reports here (links in list at bottom of page):

Also sex offenses (over 90% of those involving contact) are committed by family (the most common) or friends, with "stranger danger" accounting for less than 10% of the offenses.

Most sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders (over 90%). The likelihood of a sex offender committing another sex crime is does not usually rise beyond a single digit number.

The sex offender registry also requires registration by 'non victim" offenses such as prostitution and the possession or distribution of child pornography (not to be confused with production of child pornography which could actually include contact and an actual person), and really petty offenses such as exhibitionism.

Numerous studies have also show that most offenders who re-offend will do so within the first three years after their release and that the likelihood of re-offending decreases with age and time passed since the offense. Yet many offenders are still required to register for life, not only hindering rehabilitation and integration back into society, but costing millions of taxpayer dollars in the meantime.

Some studies have concluded that sex offender registries have done more harm than good. Read one of them here:

And now we also have registries for certain drug users and DUI offenders. One has been proposed for domestic violence offenders and those who commit acts of animal cruelty. While none of these acts can be condoned, punishment should be by the courts and should to last a lifetime for most of these offenses. Although the government claims that these laws are "regulatory" and not "punitive", making them pass constitutional scrutiny, just common sense will tell you better. It is continuing, lingering punishment. A person can kill another and suffer less punishment.

How long will we continue to spend millions of dollars foolishly simply to provide a false sense of security. How long will politicians follow knee-jerk reactions instead of reason and facts?

By: 1kenthomas on 1/11/12 at 12:33

Ugh. The story above is just terrible, and should make any reasonable person want to do better.

Those who have commented make reasonable points. It doesn't help to register 19-year olds who had a fling wiht a 17-yr-old as sex offenders. And regardless, most abuse is conducted by people who are known to the family, so these registries don't necessarily help enough.

In this case, it sounds like the girlfriend knew enough to know better, but wasn't going to care. What do you do then? Should child services take children away, if you have a known sex offender in the house?

Moreover, most Tennesee families don't know enough, to know how to identify and react. We can be too trusting, and it can be hard for families to understand what to do until it's too late.

People say they distrust government and that we need less of it, but this is one area where I am not inclined to agree. I know social workers who put their life into their jobs, go out of their way to stop this stuff, come home and can't stop dealing with it-- and they make a third what people with similar training in other fields, make.

We probably should put an electronic tracking tag on anyone who registers as "homeless," but it's also a boots on the ground problem. We need more boots on the ground, monitoring these people and stopping abuse before it happens.

By: alanpowell53 on 1/19/12 at 4:12

A sex offender registry restricted to use by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, to include current residential information can be effective. Several recent studies, independent of each other, found that community notification actually results in a slight increase of recidivism. The primary argument against community notification is that it creates, as demonstrated by this article, an illusion that the primary threat comes from registered sex offenders, those who have been convicted of a sex crime. University at Albany studied arrest records for 21 years and found that more than 95% of people arrested for a sex crime had never been convicted of a sex crime before. California's Sex Offender Management Board similarly arrived at a corresponding conclusion. Osceola County Florida announced a sting operation with 40 persons arrested for traveling to meet a child for sex. Not one was listed on any states sex offender registry! Too often I hear parents state they are more comfortable letting their children play outside because there are no sex offenders living close by. They are ignoring the 95%! The only way to protect your child is to watch the child, closely!
Jaycee Dugards father watched her walk to her school bus stop from their drive way. He watched the grey sedan slow, make a u-turn right in front of the house and drive back to the stop. He watched a woman get out, grab Jaycee, heard her scream, and watched as they drove away. He just wasn't close enough to get the license number of the car. Whether there were any sex offenders in the neighborhood wouldn't have mattered, the guy who kidnapped her and held her captive for 18 years lived 117 miles away!
9 year old Aliahna Lemmon lived in an Indiana trailer park where 15 of the 24 residences housed sex offenders. A family friend and non-sex offender has confessed to her murder.
Watch your children, closely!

By: oncefallendotcom on 7/18/12 at 8:50

of course this law sounds good on paper, but in reality it was nothing more than a feel-good law designed to fuel society's thirst for revenge. we can make all the comments in the world about killing, castrating, raping them in prison, and so forth, but the truth is it is not going to happen so let's quit with the lipservice and talk about common sense solutions.

We should be looking forward of things at work and throwing away the things that do not work, and the public registry has proven to be a big joke. The vast majority of individuals on the list will not reoffend, and that would still be the case if you took off every person on the list for public urination, Romeo and Juliet offenses, and other penny behaviors that have landed people on the list.

There are better options out there, if people are willing to take the time to implement them, but instead we are fueling a third nurse for revenge that is simply doing nothing but increasing the likelihood someone will reoffend. We are not addressing the root causes of these kinds of crimes. We are not looking at true prevention nor rehabilitation of those who have offended. All you are doing is perpetuating a vicious cycle that will never end, and the bloodlust is actually hindering many cases because nobody wants their loved ones to land on the list.

oncefallendotcom for truth