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Registration Required

Federal fugitive operation nabs more than 100 unregistered sex offenders.

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Whitehaven resident Louis Sanders was charged with sexual battery in 1998, and though he served his time for that charge, he was back in jail last week for failing to sign up with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's sex-offender registry.

Sanders and 261 others in West Tennessee were arrested during Operation FALCON III, a nationwide fugitive search conducted by the U.S. Marshals Service last month. Though the marshals served outstanding warrants for crimes ranging from homicide to burglary, the main focus of FALCON III targeted sex offenders who were not registered.

Of the 10,773 arrests nationwide, over 1,600 were unregistered sex offenders. And officers in West Tennessee arrested 103 sex offenders -- more than any other district.

"The fact that we were number one doesn't mean we have more sex offenders. It just means we were more aggressive," said David Jolley, U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Tennessee.

Operation FALCON III was fueled by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in July. The act makes it a federal felony for sex offenders to move to a new state without registering in that state. The charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

"Say a guy moves from Tennessee to Missouri. Well, Missouri doesn't know that he was a sex offender in Tennessee," said Don Hankinson, public information officer for the U.S. Marshals office in the Western District of Tennessee. "The goal was to make sure these people stay registered so states would know where they are."

However, most of the sex-offender-registration arrests in West Tennessee involved people who have remained in the area but failed to re-register from year to year or those who had failed to register a new address when moving within the state. Those charges do not fall under the Adam Walsh Act.

A week after the operation ended, a Flyer investigation of the online state offender database revealed that a number of offenders arrested for not registering were still missing from the database.

"If you're out there and you're unregistered, you'd better get back there and do it," says Hankinson. "People demand to know where you're at and they're going to keep up with you. It's better to register every year than have a warrant come out for you."

But not everyone supports the statewide database. Nashville attorney Brent Horst represents sex offenders across the state and says the registry is unfair in some circumstances, such as in the case of statutory rape. He also worries that some offenders may be wrongfully convicted of a sex crime they didn't commit, yet remain on the list for life.

"You've got some guy and a 12-year-old girl has accused him of rape, but he's adamant that he didn't do it," said Horst. "But the state says, you can go to trial and face 20 years, or you can take probation. Rather than roll the dice and risk losing the trial, he chooses probation. And then he's hit with these registration laws. Painting everyone with the same brush is really unjust."

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