By Andrew Pantazi
Andrew Flaherty was divorced, alone, legally blind. By the end of 2011, he left his Louisiana home and let his brother drive him to Jacksonville.
He hoped he could spend time with his brother’s family. Meet a few people and go fishing. Have a chance at living among people he could trust.
Nearly 11 months later, on Halloween 2012, he went to a Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles office on Blanding Boulevard and asked for a state ID card.
The clerk faced a screen of yes-no options:
Organ Donor. Insulin Dependent. Florida Resident. Sexual Predator. Career Offender. Sexual Offender.
Yes, Flaherty is insulin dependent; it was the diabetes that blurred his eyesight, forcing him to forfeit a driver’s license. Yes, he’s now a Florida resident. And then, by some twisted, warped luck, the clerk said that yes, Andrew Stokes Flaherty was a sexual offender. Except that he wasn’t.
When it comes down to it, Andrew Flaherty is suing the Duval County Tax Collector’s Office because of seven numbers and what those numbers represent.
943.0435, the numbers printed on the bottom right of his state ID card. It took five months before Flaherty learned those numbers refer to a state statute by the title of “Sexual offenders required to register with the department.”
The law requiring sex offenders identify themselves as such on all driver’s licenses and identification cards or risk felony charges passed in 2007. A Naples News article quoted Lt. Tom Smith of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s special crimes bureau as saying: “Notifying the community of the whereabouts of sex offenders and predators is the best safety measure to protect children.”
In Duval County, the Tax Collector’s Office is the licensing agent for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The printed numbers on an ID were intended to scare the public, Flaherty’s attorney John Phillips said. Those numbers warn people: Bad guy approaching. Avoid at all costs. Which can be good, Phillips said, if it’s referring to a genuine sexual offender. But Flaherty’s name doesn’t come up in the Louisiana or Florida sex offender registries.
“They've committed the worst defamation about a person,” Phillips said.
“I don’t want this to define my life,” Flaherty said, “but it really has been a major ruling factor.”
On March 9 this year, Flaherty and his brother, a longtime Navy serviceman, got into his brother’s BMW and drove to Jacksonville Naval Air Station to work on his brother’s Corvette.
They handed their IDs to the guards at the gate.
“I’m going to need you to pull over,” the guard said. After a half-hour, two of the Navy security officers explained Flaherty wasn’t allowed on base. They told his brother that according to Flaherty’s government-issued identification, he was a sex offender, even though they couldn't find him in any computer registry.
For more than 20 years, Flaherty’s brother had served in the Navy, and though he’d seen Flaherty regularly, he didn’t know what he was up to all the time. He didn’t know what could’ve happened while he was deployed in Japan.
It wasn’t until Flaherty’s sister drove him to get another ID, one that didn’t designate Flaherty as a sex offender, that his family could accept that it wasn’t true.
Still, his brother said, “It’s going to be in the back of somebody’s mind even if they proved it’s not true. My kids have kids. Do you ask him to baby-sit?”
Duval County Tax Collector Michael Corrigan apologized to Flaherty, writing in a letter, “I know that our clerk’s error likely caused you hardship during the five months in which you had possession of the incorrect ID, and for that I again offer my sincerest apology.” He said there was no reason for the error. It was unintentional, he said. It was isolated, he said.
He assured Flaherty in the April 26 letter that he was “working with the state to determine if there are additional safeguards that can be built into their system.”
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles also sent Flaherty two checks totaling $31.25 to pay him back for the mistaken ID.
- What about all the embarassment, harassment, hardship, etc?
That was the last time Flaherty heard from any officials. In November, Flaherty filed a lawsuit against the Duval County Tax Collector’s Office, alleging two counts of defamation and claiming at least $15,000 in damages.
“How many people at the grocery store saw when I showed my ID with a credit card?” Flaherty said. “How many people at the pharmacy?”
“They gave me the same designation as Donald Smith,” he said, referring to the man charged with abducting, raping and killing an 8-year-old girl this past summer. “They put me in that category. How would that affect you? Y’know? What do you do? I own a house here now; I can’t just sell it and move away. What do I do?”
Sherry Hall, chief administrative officer at the Tax Collector’s Office, said she couldn't comment on a pending lawsuit, but she said the state issued the system used by the clerk that didn’t have safeguards to double-check if he was a sex offender. The clerks have received additional training to make sure they understand how devastating a mistake can be, she said.
“Our trainers use that story as an example,” she said, “so they can understand how important it is to be accurate.”
John Lucas, spokesman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said the computer system was already scheduled to be replaced and the department has asked for $10.9 million in the 2014 budget so it can update its licensing computer system. Without that money, he said he doesn't know if any safeguards have been planned.
- We believe this is total BS! Why in the world would it cost so much money to fix a problem like this?
The system today, he said, is the same as it was when Flaherty was labeled a sex offender.
“The error,” he said, “was not by our organization.” This was the first case he said he’s heard of where someone was accidentally called a sex offender.
Phillips and Flaherty said something needs to change.
“You are never going to get back the first impression,” Flaherty said, “and that’s a really hard first impression.”
“How do you define justice?” Phillips said. “Justice isn't defined as a check. Mr. Flaherty doesn't want this to happen to another person. He wants to stop this from happening and help people who have had this happen to them and don’t know.”
“I’m blind,” Flaherty said. “I’m going all over town saying here, let me slander myself. It’s so funny but it’s so freaking horrible. It’s, oh my god, how do you deal with that? … A simple little letter of apology to me is not telling everybody at, say, Walmart or all the banks and so forth — all the doctor’s offices — that wanted a copy of my ID. It’s telling me that they’re sorry but it’s not telling everybody else.”
Phillips said it’s hard for Flaherty to try to tell those he showed his ID to that it wasn’t accurate.
“Who second-guesses the DMV?” Phillips said. “It’s how you prove who you are on federal bases. If you've got a gray beard like I do but your ID says you’re 20, they might not sell you beer.”
- (05/09/2013) Jacksonville man mistakenly labeled sex offender on Florida ID (Video below)