Oakland police suspend sex offender registrations during COVID-19 pandemic

Due to the threat from the coronavirus, the Oakland Police Department has closed its registry unit where many of the city’s sex offenders are required to check in every month, officials said.

Now, the city of Oakland has no up-to-date addresses or other important information on hundreds of offenders – particularly transient sex offenders – raising concerns from victims' advocates and offenders who are trying to register alike.

“We’ve put a whole population at risk and I find that very, very concerning,” said Nina Salarno-Besselman, an attorney with Crime Victims United, a public safety and victims’ advocacy group that fought to pass California’s Megan’s Law in the 1990s.

The law created a public sex offender database that’s controlled by the state Department of Justice.

Offenders who qualify must register with their local police departments every year. Transient sex offenders must update where they’ll be staying every 30 days. And anyone released from jail or prison has five days to register.

Other cities in the Bay Area and California have found ways to still keep tabs on sex offenders, like updating registrants’ information by phone or in person.

The Oakland Police Department did not elaborate on the closure, only saying the I.D. and Offender Registry Unit is closed “due to the COVID19 pandemic” and “the registration process has been suspended.”

A homeless man in Oakland who is a registered sex offender is concerned that he cannot update his information with the police department. He's now in violation of is registration requirements.

The city of Oakland has 887 sex offenders registered on the Megan’s Law website. As of Tuesday, nearly 400 of them were in violation of their registration requirements – meaning they can be arrested and taken to jail.

The closure of the office comes as several high-profile sex offenders have been released as California works to thin out it’s jails during the pandemic.

The district attorney in Orange County warned residents that seven registered sex offenders -- with crimes ranging from indecent exposure, to sexual battery, to child molestation -- were ordered to be released by the courts.

And earlier this month, 61-year-old Gregory Vien was ordered to be released from Santa Rita Jail. He’s accused of sexually assaulting two women in 1997.

If any of them come to Oakland, they won’t be able to register.

“I would think that checking on sex offenders is one of the most essential services that we can provide,” Salarno-Besselman said.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office along with the cities of Hayward, San Leandro, and Berkeley are still doing registrations, officials with the district attorney’s office said.

San Francisco is giving registrants a form to fill out with a temporary waiver for other requirements. Los Angeles is doing all appointments by phone.

Anyone who fails to register in those cities can still be prosecuted. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said it is coordinating with the Oakland Police Department and will not file any cases for offenders failing to register after the office closed on March 16.

But offenders who are in violation can still be arrested. And the Oakland Police Department has not said whether it’s coordinating with other counties.

The policy in Oakland is frustrating some sex offenders who said they are doing everything they can to follow state law. KTVU spoke to a homeless man in Oakland who is a registered offender and did not want to be identified.

 “I’ve done everything I can. How is it I’m in violation of state law for complying with everything I possibly can?” he said in a recent interview.

He spent 10 years in state prison for the continued sexual abuse of a minor under 14 and went to a state hospital for treatment before getting out.

He tried to register at Oakland police headquarters like he does every month but couldn’t. The Megan’s Law website now shows he’s in violation.

“The surprising thing to me is the police department wasn’t telling us anything,” he said. “They’re saying we’re going to reschedule you as if everything is fine.”

Civil right’s attorney Janice Bellucci said he can still be arrested – even if the district attorney doesn’t prosecute. That would mean his vehicle would likely be impounded and he would face hundreds of dollars in impound fees.

 “If they’re stopped by law enforcement for any reason, they can be taken immediately into custody,” Bellucci said.

If an offender who is trying to comply but is still in violation leaves the county, they could get picked up by another law enforcement agency and charged, she said.

 “Oakland is the only city of which I’m currently aware that is refusing to register sex offenders and is not providing them with an alternative method and because of that I believe the city is violating state law," Bellucci said. 

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky