By DAMIEN CAVE
MIAMI — They used to be invisible, the four or five convicted sex offenders camping out on the Julia Tuttle Causeway connecting Miami to Miami Beach. But for three years now — pushed by local laws that bar them from living within 2,500 feet of where children gather — more and more criminals have moved in.
“At first, I thought ‘Tuttle’ was a halfway house,” said Ricky Dorzena, 23, sitting in the encampment his probation officers recommended five months ago. “Then they said, ‘No, you’re staying under a bridge.’ ”
At least 70 convicted sex offenders live here now, in a shantytown on Biscayne Bay with trash piles clawed by crabs. It has become what even law enforcement officials call a public-safety hazard, produced by laws intended to keep the public safe.
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in state court to strike them down. The complaint argues that Miami-Dade County’s 2,500-foot restriction illegally pre-empts the state’s restriction of 1,000 feet, creating a situation in which sex offenders are more likely to flee supervision and commit new crimes.
Similar challenges to local residency restrictions in New York and New Jersey have recently succeeded in court, but legal experts say the Florida case will be watched closely because few states have tougher laws, or have drawn as much attention for child abductions — from Adam Walsh to Caylee Anthony.
“Florida is important because they have tested the bounds,” said Corey Rayburn Yung, an expert in sex-offender law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “If Florida’s courts are willing to say, ‘No, no, you can’t do this,’ then it’s a sign that most other courts would come out the same way.”
The camp is a community no one wants to exist. The first sex offenders here, like Patrick Wiese, 48, who said he served time in prison after having his stepdaughter touch him inappropriately, arrived nearly three years ago and would like to leave. Smoking a cigarette under the bridge on Thursday, Mr. Wiese said he wants to move to Homestead. He has money. He has a job at a sandwich shop, but cannot find an apartment that complies with the law.
“I’ve checked out 17 places,” he said, after displaying his Florida license, which lists his address as “Julia Tuttle Bridge.” “The probation officer says no.”
In the beginning, he said, the camp was small, without many problems. But lately, it has become more tense as the recession and the steady flow of former prisoners added residents.
Under the bridge on Thursday, tents and plywood shacks competed for space with rusty bicycles, a skinny cat, and a beige lawn chair. In a sign of the camp’s bereft permanence, a yellow electrical cord attached to a generator snaked through the camp flat against the ground, pounded by countless footsteps.
“Sometimes we have harmony, sometimes chaos,” Mr. Wiese said. Mr. Dorzena, who said he served 17 months in jail for having sex with a 14-year-old when he was 18, smoked a cigarette beside him. “Right now,” Mr. Wiese said, “we have so many people here, it’s chaos.”
The police agree.
John Timoney, the Miami police chief, said that on the Fourth of July, several officers used a stun gun against a man under the bridge who, in a fit of depression, began cutting himself with a knife, apparently in a suicide attempt. Chief Timoney predicted more violence.
He said he had told city, state and county officials that the men (only one or two women live there) needed to be moved to more permanent homes, even if it meant changing one or more laws. He has gotten mostly studies in return, along with politicians accusing one another of shirking responsibility.
“It’s like a hot potato,” Chief Timoney said. “Everyone is just passing it on.”
In fact, Jose Diaz — the county commissioner who sponsored the law establishing the 2,500-foot boundary in 2005 — said state corrections officials were to blame for placing sex offenders on state-owned land. He defended the county law by saying, “If I can save some kids from going through this agony, I’ve done my job.”
Gov. Charlie Crist, meanwhile, placed responsibility squarely on local governments, which have “the right to do what they feel is appropriate for the citizens that they serve.”
Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Corrections, put the problem in a broader perspective: “It’s an issue that everybody needs to deal with.”
But as the camp’s continued existence shows, no one has — which is not a surprise, Mr. Rayburn Yung said. “These laws are always universally popular,” he said. “The public loves it.”
Only the courts may force a change. The A.C.L.U. lawsuit argues that extreme residency restrictions contribute to homelessness, and lead sex offenders to commit more crimes because they are “living in filth and squalor, remote from family life.”
For proof, it cites the state’s online list of registered sex offenders and predators, which shows that 236 offenders in Miami-Dade County have skipped out on their probation, including some who used to live under the bridge on the causeway.
Ms. Plessinger said corrections officials shared the A.C.L.U.’s concerns. Noting that living under an interstate was a last resort caused by lack of money and the strict local rules, she said: “It’s not a good situation. It’s not a good situation for probation officers. It’s not a good situation for the offenders under the bridge, but it’s also not a good situation for public safety in Miami-Dade.”
Gary Fineout contributed reporting from Tallahassee, Fla.