If you are one of Miami-Dade County's homeless, you might have heard about St. Christopher's by the Sea, an Episcopal church on Key Biscayne that provides sandwiches, food vouchers, and perhaps a little moral support to those down on their luck. Key Biscayne, of course, is better known as a haven for the wealthy, not as a destination for the destitute. But the island is home to a small enclave of homeless people who camp along the beaches. Other homeless who know of the church's generosity come by bus or foot seeking a handout as well as a hand up.
There is, however, a cost attached to this largess not normally associated with charities. Homeless men and women who come to St. Christopher's for assistance are asked to fill out a detailed form eliciting the following information: type of assistance requested, name, nicknames, address and telephone (if any), date of birth, Social Security number, hair color, eye color, height and weight, facial hair, any identification cards, and a contact in case of emergency. If individuals seeking assistance have an identification card with a photograph, it is photocopied and attached to the form. If they do not, church workers take a photograph of them and attach that to the form.
All this is then promptly delivered to the Key Biscayne Police Department.
The department's detective bureau uses the information to run a criminal-history check on each and every St. Christopher's visitor seeking help. Church officials say they have been doing this for at least two years, having initiated the screening process at the request of police in an effort to safeguard children at the onsite Montessori school, as well as St. Agnes Academy, an elementary school across the street. "The police asked that we do that because we have a school here," says Mary Sinisi, the church administrator. "They made up the forms and brought them to us. It's to protect the children." (Key Biscayne police Chief Michael Flaherty asserts that it was school officials who first approached the department.)
The background checks, which use the Florida Crime Information Center and the FBI's National Crime Information Center computer databases, are conducted with an objective in mind: to determine if anyone with a history as a sexual predator or a violent past is entering school grounds. If that were to be discovered, the individual would be asked to leave and not return.
So far no homeless visitors have tripped those alarms, and none has refused to fill out the form, says Father Gabriel Sinisi, church rector and St. Agnes headmaster (and Mary Sinisi's husband). But if someone did refuse, he or she most likely would be turned away, Sinisi adds.
Police Chief Flaherty believes the criminal checks are justified and legal. "We're not trying to intrude into the rights of the homeless," he stresses. "We're trying to protect the children." Legally, the chief says, police are allowed to run such checks and share the information with the public under the state's so-called sexual-predator law, which requires convicted sexual predators to register with the state and permits police to notify the public when a registered offender moves into a community. In addition, he says, the department has the authority under state laws allowing police to conduct background checks on school employees and people who frequent school grounds.
Protecting children is a laudable goal, agrees Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, but this degree of cooperation between a church and a law-enforcement agency is unsettling. Moreover it may be illegal. "What happens here is an end run around various privacy laws, like the federal Privacy Act that regulates when a government can request a Social Security number," Marshall says. "If the police designed the form, then it raises the argument that the police are using the church to gather information they otherwise might not be able to gather on their own.
"And it raises the question of whether the police department would perform this service for anyone else in the private sector. In other words suppose you have an apartment building next to a school. Would the police run such checks on tenants if the landlord asked? Would they do so for employers who operate near a school?"
To determine if someone is a registered sexual predator, police don't need to conduct a criminal-history check; officers can simply refer to a publicly available list maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Also it's not entirely clear whether police are authorized to run criminal background checks on people other than school employees. Furthermore an internal Key Biscayne police memorandum indicates that the department shares an individual's entire criminal history, not just sexually oriented and violent crimes, with church and school officials.
Although the church's form, titled "St. Christopher's by the Sea Episcopal Church -- Person Requesting Assistance," does not state that the information it collects is shared with police, Gabriel and Mary Sinisi say they tell applicants the form will be handed over to the cops. But the ACLU's Marshall contends that verbal disclosure is not a legally sufficient way to notify them.
"This is not a sting thing," Father Sinisi says. "We're not trying to get people trapped. We want to feed them. But we have a primary responsibility to the parents who entrust their kids to us." Sinisi adds that to his knowledge, there have not been any incidents in which the homeless have bothered children.
A folder kept in the dispatch area of the Key Biscayne Police Department contains all the homeless-assistance forms for which the department has run criminal checks. "You are in receipt of a binder containing basic information of [sic] all homeless individuals who have been in contact with the various churches in our area," states a January memo from Lt. Ben Torres to the department's officers. "A complete check on these individuals, which has been done by the detective bureau, will be kept in the dispatch area. Please make sure that you become familiar with this information."
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Inside the binder are the church's forms and the results of the criminal checks. One memorandum from Det. C. Rodriguez to Chief Flaherty, dated January 11, 2001, notes that a criminal-history check of a particular homeless man was conducted "for the churches. Subject was found to have a criminal past. Contacted Quintela from St. Agnes Church and Mrs. Mary Sinisi from St. Christopher was also advised." The man's past arrests ranged from petty larceny to strong-arm robbery, though no sex crimes were listed.
"Maybe what the church ought to be doing is looking for an alternate site to be providing these services," says Randall Marshall. "The homeless are already on the site when they fill out the form. The risk is present whether they gather the information or not, because some amount of time passes before a background check is done."
If a homeless person were to complain to the ACLU about the St. Christopher's forms, Marshall notes, the organization would consider filing a lawsuit.