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.