Can’t find that house in public records? It could have a protected address

Tampa Bay Times by Susan Taylor Martin

September 8, 2017

Perhaps this has happened to you.

Driving around, you spot a house you like. You decide to look on the property appraiser’s web site to see who owns it, how big it is, how much it’s worth. But when you put in the address, nothing comes up. Nada.

You’ve just encountered a protected address.

Throughout the Tampa Bay area, thousands of homes have all but disappeared from the public record because their owners are eligible under Florida law to have their addresses kept confidential. Initially, the idea was to protect judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers whose jobs put them in jeopardy. Over time, though, the list of occupations eligible for protected addresses has ballooned to include people who check if your grass is too high or if you’re cutting hair without a license.

“It’s out of hand,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

Protected addresses were recently in the news when the New York Post reported that the family of former pro football star and convicted felon O. J. Simpson had bought a house for him in St. Petersburg. Speculation focused — wrongly, as it turned out — on a waterfront home on which all information that could identify the owners had been redacted.

But the house wasn’t all that unusual. In Pinellas County, 3,740 homes have protected addresses. In Hillsborough, it’s 3,129. Pasco has 2,495 and Hernando 1,159.

Under Florida Statute 119.071, the list of property owners who may qualify for a confidential address now includes firefighters, EMTs, human resources managers (and assistant managers), code enforcement officers, tax collectors, juvenile probation officers, house parents, therapists, counselors, inspectors with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and even people work in the internal audit department of a government agency.

That’s in addition to victims of violent crime, police, judges, state and federal prosecutors, public defenders, special magistrates and child enforcement hearing officers.

“It seems to me there are some categories not in there that the Legislature probably should consider, and there are some in there that I question the necessity,” said Will Shepherd, legal counsel for the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s Office. “I wonder if code enforcement is more deserving than some teacher who has been threatened by a student. I don’t know —- that’s a debate for the Legislature.”

Petersen, whose non-profit foundation promotes open government, says Florida lawmakers have often added categories to the list despite little concrete evidence that a need for protection exists.

“When the Legislature wants to create a new exemption, there has to be a statement of public necessity,” Petersen says. “We always say, ‘Give us the evidence that proves the need,’ and they say, ‘Oh, somebody stole my Christmas lights’ or ‘Somebody might hurt them.’ It’s all speculative.”

One example of what Petersen calls the “ridiculous” increase in exemptions came a few years ago after ISIS posted a “hit” list of 100 U.S. military personnel and encouraged its sympathizers on American soil to go after them. In reaction, Florida lawmakers exempted the home addresses of all current and former members of the U.S. armed forces who served after 9/11 and are now living in the sunshine state.

“It turned out the U.S. military had posted information bragging about their best and brightest and ISIS had just picked it up,” Petersen said. “But if you worked in supply at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and moved to Florida, your home would be exempt from public disclosure.”

Even if Florida property appraisers exempt information, both Petersen and Shepherd note that in the age of Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, it is not hard for a disgruntled employee or embittered ex-spouse to track someone with a protected address.

Several years ago, Petersen met with guardian ad litems who sought an exemption because they deal with difficult situations including those in which people have lost their parental rights.

“They were in danger and showed evidence of threats, but before they came in I looked each of them up on the Internet and got maps to their houses. I got the names of their spouses, where the kids went to school and almost every one of them was in the telephone book,” Petersen said. “I keep making this point — if I want to hurt you, I’m going to Google you and chances are I know where you work and can follow you home. It’s virtually impossible to protect that information.” [READ MORE]

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