Business Ethics Discussion Topic -- Public Accommodation and the Sex Offender Registry

My company operates campgrounds on public lands under contract with various public agencies.  Over the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion about public accommodation (e.g. can a private photographer choose not to serve a gay wedding).  This has never really been a big issue for me in my business, both due to my personal tolerance of just about anyone and the fact that we operate on public lands, which gives us an extra responsibility for broad accommodation.

Yesterday a sheriff's deputy in Arizona comes by one of the campgrounds we operate and gave a flyer to our manager.  It says that so-and-so, we will call him Mr. Smith, is in the area and is registered as a level 3 high-risk sex offender ("level 3 is the highest level and considered the highest risk to reoffense").  The deputy lets my folks know that it would be better not to do business with this guy.

Now personally, I have a lot of skepticism for the sex offender registry.  These lists sweep up a lot of people whose crimes are trivial (e.g. teenagers who had sex together or texted pictures with their girlfriends).  They assume high risk of recidivism without evidence.  Their existence dates back to a variety of molestation panics that were grossly exaggerated, and play on what I think are irrational public fears.  They can act as a substantial extra punishment beyond what they might have been charged with in court.  And they can be harsh, making it nearly impossible for someone to try to live a normal life in any community.

So the dilemma arises because this gentleman was staying in our campground at the time we received the notice.  My female manager wanted him out, as did most of my employees.  My guess is that if I polled the guests, most of them would want this guy out.  Because many people in a campground are in tents without any door or lock, they can feel particularly vulnerable.  I had never really thought about this much until we added cabins with locking doors to a campground and the early customers were disproportionately single women and women on their own with their kids.  They liked the lock.

My most telling problem is one of liability.  The state of Arizona has officially notified me that in the state's opinion this person is high-risk (whatever I might suspect his true risk may be).  If some incident were to happen, this notification would be exhibit one in the trial suing me into bankruptcy, arguing that I callously and knowingly allowed this risk to remain when I had it in my power to remove it.  I suppose one could argue that I probably always have people on the sex offender list in one of our campgrounds almost every day since there is no reasonable way to check on such things.  But in this case I have been notified in writing by an agent of the state that this person is considered high risk -- this knowledge gives me added responsibility.

I made my decision already, because part of the joy of running a 24/7/365 service business with 2.5 million customers a year is that I have many decisions like this and I have to make a choice and move on.  But I am curious what your decision would be.  Discuss.

Update:  wow, the discussion here is just tremendously useful.   The commenter who observed that I could probably be sued either way successfully captured the flavor of my frustrations trying to run a business in the modern legal environment.

It struck me later that I might not even have a decision to make.   The Forest Service which owns the land may not even allow such folks to be excluded from public lands.  If this is the case, I can get that in writing and do what I prefer (ie not participate in the further punishment of this gentleman) but have some coverage against legal liability in the future.


  1. Nehemiah:

    Not even a close call for me. Please remove yourself from the premises. Are sex offenders typically lovers of the outdoors? Or does a campground present opportunities? What if the offense was child abuse?

  2. mckyj57:

    I'd tell him that we received the notice, and ask him to relocate to a spot right by the manager's office if he wanted to stay in the campground for the remainder of his booked stay. Then I would accept no further reservations for him, should he try to come back.

  3. jjc:

    I think you are painted into a corner because of the liability issue, especially in light of the fact that the state went to the trouble to notify you of him specifically (do they always tell you when people on the list show up?), and you pretty much have to remove the person, assuming, that is, that you are allowed to remove someone for this reason. There may be some weird government policy against you removing him, for all I know, and it wouldn't surprise me if you were liable to lawsuit if you do not removing him and also liable in a lawsuit if you do remove him.

  4. Tim Broberg:

    I believe I would do two things:
    1 - Check to see if there is any publicly available information on his case. Is he dangerous? Is the nature of the crime serial? If this is just a bad dude, carefully show him the door.
    2 - If not, the liability issue remains. Show him the door with as much kindness and courtesy as possible. Take some time to talk and listen. If it's a hardship losing the reservation, pick up the tab at a local motel. "I'm very sorry, sir, my hands are tied. I'm sure you've seen it before and you understand how it is, but I hope you'll allow me to buy you dinner in town and, if you like, we can swap stories."

    I don't think you have much control over what you have to do here, but you have a lot of control over how you do it.

  5. me:

    Depressing, knowing details about another somewhat similar case, there is a good chance that this is a guy who's done nothing and is getting cruel and unusual punishment left and right, year after year.

    I don't believe you have any choice but to ask him to leave, given the liability situation and the impact on the feelings of your other customers. Personally, I'd offer him a full refund of all money he paid and apologize.

    If you feel like I do, good reason to donate to the ACLU.

  6. Petri:

    The (female) manager that wanted him to evicted?

  7. Joshua:

    I share your mistrust of sex offender registries, but I'd lean towards asking him to leave. Regarding the liability issue, you might be constrained on both sides - what does the law say regarding denying service when you are a public accommodation?

    I'd start with contacting the sheriff's office, let them know that a) a deputy recommended you not do business with Smith, and b) it's too late - he's already paid for a site. Do they have any recommendations? If they leave it in your hands, I'd politely ask the guy to leave and refund his money, and possibly the difference between that and the nearest motel as Tim Broberg recommended in another comment.

    It's been said that if you tell somebody (generally an underling) what to do, you will always have to tell them what to do. In this case, the law enforcement agencies have told your company what to do (I think they generally consider everybody an underling), and I think you need to pass the buck on to them as much as possible.

  8. mckyj57:

    Sure, why not? I assume she wants to do her job.

  9. Thane_Eichenauer:

    For all the reasons you give in paragraph number three I would allow the person to remain subject to the same rules that everybody else has to follow. If the powers that be don't want you to do business with that person then the deputy should arrest that person else the deputy should get along with investigating actual crimes.

  10. DanSmith:

    I'd make sure my umbrella insurance policy was paid up. Then I would tell the man that the state had fingered him and he was going to be living under a microscope. I would not boot him out.

  11. Mike:

    It’s an unfortunate situation for all. Whatever your decision may be, I would certainly keep the deputy apprised and directly involved as best I could. It sounds like he’s passing on to you what should most likely be the state’s liability. But since you are in business with them, I guess you should shoulder some responsibility. Either way, be vigilant in making sure the deputy (as the state’s employee) takes on liability as well, in whatever shape or form. The way you make it sound is that the deputy distributed some flyer notifications regarding the situation and pretty much passed all responsibility on to you. Good luck.

  12. craftman:

    In short, kick him out (say sherriff came by and it's a liability issue) but give him a business card and ask him to contact you if he needs help with housing/jobs. Take him out to lunch, get to know his story (is he worthy of help or truly some terrible guy?). Business decision is one thing, doesn't mean you can't treat him like a human outside of that.

  13. Dragon:

    Curious that the sheriff's deputy appears to know that this sex offender is staying at your public park and has taken the time to bring this flyer to your personal attention. I would try to obtain more information on the severity of the sex offense and how recent was the offense. I would also check your companies policies concerning denying service to customers to see if they have a policy about denying service to sex offenders. I know of several young men, one my nephew, who got nailed for a sex offense by jilted girl friends. They have this sex offender misdemeanor now on their records and they have had trouble getting jobs. There are bonafide serious sex offenders that prey on people in public parks especially children so it would help me make my decision if I knew more about the seriousness of the prior conviction and also how long ago it happened. I once was on an employee hiring committee that chose to overlook a sex offender conviction from 25 years ago when we received verification that the young man married the woman and was still married to her. If I decided that the offense was minor and that my company had no policy stating that it was Ok to kick out a paid customer for a prior sex offense then I would talk to the camper and share with him that he is being watched my the local police as that will act as a deterrent if he has any future sex offenses in the camp in mind. Keep in mind that the majority of sex offenders do not repeat the offense.

  14. Curtis:

    When my wife and I were landlords, we had 2 potential tenants on the sex offender list. We contacted their parole officers and then took both as tenants. One was 14 when he had sex with his girlfriend. The other was a nice guy when taking medications and non-violent crazy when off them. His ex-wife filed a questionable charge one time when he went off the drugs. FWIW, we had two young children at the time and had no problems with either living close to us.

    Our option is probably not available to you because of the time involved.

  15. Dragon:

    Check your company's policy to see if they condone kicking hm out. Try to find out if he has a serious sex offense or one of the countless misdemeanor sex offenses and how long ago was the offense. If your company says it is ok to remove a paid customer because of a prior sex offense then ask him to leave. If your company does not allow for this then use your best judgement. I know from experience that having a sex offender conviction is not always a reliable indicator of safety. I know several young men who got sex offender misdemeanors on their record from jilted ex girlfriends and years later still have to explain to potential employers their youthful folly of poor dating judgement. I was on a hiring committee that overlooked a 25 year old sex offender conviction when we were provided proof that the man married the girl and was still married to her 25 years later. If the offense is serious then you should consider kicking the decision upstairs or at the least talking to the offender and letting him/her know that the local police have notified you of his offense as this would act as a deterrent. This is clearly not a cut an dried decision but one that requires some critical thinking skills.

  16. Matthew Slyfield:

    What if the offense was public urination? Coyote has no way to find out what the underlying offense was that put him on the registry.

  17. Georgia Boy:

    This one seems particularly bad from a business perspective and it is the kind of decision I dread. You could be sued either way, possibly even successfully in both cases. From a purely business perspective I think the risk is higher if you do not ban him. Not only could you be sued if something happened, you could possibly risk a "hostile environment" suit from the female employees. The later would likely fail, but could still be crippling.

    Ethically? I strongly object to pariah laws. A law that makes it impossible for someone to be a functioning member of society serves no positive benefit to society. We are forcing someone into a life on the fringes where they are much more likely to commit some crime even if not the one they originally committed.

    Ethically I would like to take a stand and say "Unless the state forces me to treat this person as a pariah I refuse to". However standing on that ethical point could cost you the company. Even if you were not buried in lawsuits, any business is subject to rabid SJW mob justice. If an incident did happen, mob justice might sink you even if lawsuits did not. It could drastically change the standard of living for your family. Would they agree with the decision if your business was buried and you had to sell the home all due to you defending this guy?

    My gut feeling is that this could be a case. Your business has suffered a loss, so you'd have standing to challenge the law. However I have no sense on the strength of that case. I'd want to have someone like the ACLU ready to step in and carry the flag and you'd probably lose the business either way. Good luck winning a state contract after you make that stand.

    There are many objectionable laws in the country and you can only sacrifice the business you've spent years building once. Is this the law you want to make that sacrifice for?

    I ask these not to have you answer. That's all rather personal. Standing on ethical points can have an exceedingly high personal cost these days. It's a tough call because it is not "Do I want to defend this guy?" It is "Am I willing to make the sacrifice?"

  18. Matthew Teague:

    I think this is a nice middle ground approach.

    I also think your insurance company would dispute the liability claim, and that you would well breach your liability limits if anything happened.

  19. Matthew Teague:

    Not necessarily true. He has google, and the personal details of the person in question from whatever forms he requires to rent a camp site.

  20. DirtyJobsGuy:

    What does the law say about his restrictions? This is in effect a court order on him not you. Usually these involve not living near schools or playgrounds plus notifying the local police of your location. I'd let the sheriff know he was in the campground and let the camper know as well. The cops can handle any legal restrAint and by notifying him he's put a little bit on notice. Best you can do

  21. Solomon Foster:

    I had a comment along these lines ready to go, then I read the post again. A "level 3 high-risk sex offender" seems relatively unlikely to be an innocent swept up by a stupid law.

  22. Maximum Liberty:

    I'll point out two things that no one else has, since everyone else has made pretty good points on either side.

    First off, Coyote can probably look the guy up to find out what the offense was, though details will be lacking (though often the age of the victim is present, along with the age or date of birth of the offense and when the conviction occurred, allowing you to figure out the age gap).

    Second, I'd remove as much risk as possible by passing the buck. Call the sheriff's office, and ask whether they are instructing you to remove him (they will say no) or whether they advise removing him (they will say no). Get that written down in a memo to file. Next, call your insurer and ask if they have any advice for you. If they say no, then you can use that later when they fault you for whatever you decided to do. Third, call the government agency for whom you operate the park and ask whether they interpret the contract to require you to allow anyone to stay who is not disruptive and is not barred by law. If they agree to that, your hands are tied! If they don't agree to that, then ask whether they require you to bar sex offenders from their land, using the same approach as with the sheriff's office.

    Moral and ethical decisions are hard work: make someone else make them!

    (OK, my tongue is in my cheek on that last sentence. But seriously, if you take these kinds of steps, it will at least help in a negligence case.)

  23. joe:

    This dilemna is a plaintiff attorneys dream
    Let him stay and he commits some act, however minor and get sued
    Kick him out (ask him to leave quietly) - and get sued

    The attorney wins in both cases

  24. Matthew Slyfield:

    Or more likely since you were given notice, your insuance company would refuse coverage.

  25. Matthew Slyfield:

    That wouldn't necessarily turn up anything related to why he's on the sex offender registry.

  26. Matthew Slyfield:

    A "level 3 high-risk sex offender" seems relatively meaningless to me.

    How many total levels do they have? Is level 1 the highest or the lowest risk? Risk of what? General risk of re-offense? Okay, a public urinator might be high risk to urinate in public again, but that wouldn't make him a danger to other campers.

  27. mx:

    Since sex offenders are people like everyone else, some of them are undoubtedly lovers of the outdoors. In other cases, laws targeting registered offenders will make it impossible for them to live anywhere inside the city limits (can't be within so many feet of a school, park, playground, school bus stop, after school program, etc... starts to encompass the entire community very quickly, especially if every random little daycare is considered a school) and the entire point of these laws is to force offenders out of town. The result is that people are pushed out into the woods because they have nowhere else to go.

    It got bad enough that Miami at one point had 100+ registered sex offenders living in tents under a causeway because everywhere else in the county was off-limits to them. That's not exactly an environment that would be considered conducive to rehabilitation.

  28. LoneSnark:

    That cop just doesn't like the guy and followed him there. He probably follows him everywhere, making his life hell. It is the most likely explanation. Maybe he got put on the list for sexting with the cops sister. If the guy was as dangerous as the cop suggests, then why was he released from prison?

  29. Craig:

    I don't think it's even close. Play it out both ways. If the guest is quietly asked to leave, what's the downside? It's possible that you could be sued, but his damages would be low and he would not be a particularly sympathetic plaintiff.

    If you don't ask him to leave (with Sheriff's assistance if necessary), what could your damages be if God forbid there's a problem? You have notice, you were advised to evict the camper, you did not, and a child was injured. Liability would be a slam dunk. Damages could be high and punitive damages could be in the $millions, even in Arizona. Plus, there's possible damage to your brand and ability to get state contracts anywhere, ever again.

  30. Solomon Foster:

    There's a link up there explaining what it means, though it is a bit verbose and awkward. But the short answer is, it's definitely not the "did something minor wrong once" category.

  31. Not Sure:

    "The deputy lets my folks know that it would be better not to do business with this guy."

    Call the deputy, tell him he's there and let the deputy deal with him if he's concerned that there might be a problem.

  32. Fred_Z:

    How can the Coyote possibly evict a paid-in-full occupant? That's just asking for a different lawsuit.

  33. Fred_Z:

    And attorneys draft the laws. What a surprise.

  34. bobby_b:

    Last thing he wants to do is search for the person's name and then make some discretionary determination of whether the bad guy is sufficiently bad.

    That would subject him to even more personal liability if he decided the bad guy was only a medium-bad guy and let him stay, but then the bad guy did something bad.

    I would contact the police and ask them to make a recommendation.

  35. Craig:

    OK, which lawsuit do you want? Again, it's about damages. Refund about covers the damages from an eviction. What are the damages if something happens because Coyote did not evict him? Make the decision tree, estimate the probability of each lawsuit, and multiply P times the possible damages.

    Easy decision.

  36. Thane_Eichenauer:

    Either the person is behaving in the here and now or he isn't. If he is behaving and if Warren believes that he will continue to behave then why disaccomodate him in the first place?

  37. jdgalt:

    I would be inclined to let him stay. Too many non-dangerous "crimes" put people on the sex offender list, and police often threaten businesses this way to screw people they don't like, when they don't have any legitimate power to do anything about them.

    Besides, who is generally liable when someone gets hurt on the properties you manage? Most likely the government.

  38. Jerryskids:

    This is an interesting case. From a strictly economic liability standpoint it's clear you have a duty to minimize the risk to yourself and your employees and your company but at some point you're a human being as well and so is this risk. If he's paid his debt to society and trying to get on with his life, is it fair that he's effectively been given a life sentence for his crime? There certainly is a good bit of moral panic in the whole sex offender list thing and telling you he's a "level 3 offender" doesn't really give you anything to go on as far as assessing the risk.

    It'd be nice to think you could go talk to the guy, let him know he's under a microscope - however unfairly so - and that you're sticking your neck out to let him stay, maybe get a sense of whether or not the guy seems to be a decent enough sort, but it's easy enough to be fooled by some psycho and is it really your place to be trying to save every broken wretch you come across?

    But then on the other hand, where do you draw the line on being pushed by the government into doing things you're obviously uncomfortable doing? I'm not going to Godwin up the thread by making the obvious reference to a time and place where people went along with doing things to other people just because "the law's the law", but, you know. It's a tough call.

  39. Nicholas Maietta:

    I am a registered citizen with my conviction dating all the way back to 2000, almost exactly 17 years ago. I have been a role model citizen since that time. In fact, i pilot a software development firm about to change the entire world of how people build websites using content management systems. I recently moved to a small mountain town of Boulder Creek, just a very short drive into the heart of Silicon Valley where my work is needed. That said, i have been forced to work for myself because people won't hire me. My salary for my skills and experience would be easily the 250k/year range had it not been for the public registry. I have seen first hand business shun me aside simply because of my past conviction. In fact, i had an officer tell a local business they might not want to do business with me. That business was my local Starbucks location in my hometown. Starbucks said I was welcome to stay and continue working from my laptop as I was there every morning working and enjoying my coffee and pastry. I have also been prevented from renting year after year and remained homeless as a result due to being on the registry. With THAT said, i will say this: I am finally in a position that the next business who decides to not rent from me will find themselves in a world of hurt: Because I will sue the hell out of them for basic civil rights violations as well as violation of California State Law. The law makes it VERY CLEAR that people are not to use the information found on the registry to banish people from employment as well as housing. The other thing i don't due is hide the fact that i'm on the registry.

    I have contemplated setting up a sting operation for catching people in violation of the law. It's very simple. Have a private investigator go into a rental office or a business looking for work, with me coming in within a minute or two of them after they've started a conversation with the employer or property manager. I would go in, get an application and walk out. Then the private investigator would say something like: You know, that guy that just walked in looks like someone that is on Megan's Law registry. If the employer or property manager decided to say something that is damning legally such as "Good, i won't be hiring him" or "Thanks for the heads up, i won't be renting to him, but i'll take his application fee", then armed with legally obtained evidence (through recording and the PI being a witness), i could begin the process of taking people to court.

    Year after year after year being cast aside by people has really built up a lot of anger ready to be unleashed on anyone who stands in my way to success.

  40. Nicholas Maietta:

    Insurance has no legal standing because in most states, it is illegal to prevent a registrant from obtaining housing or employment. Because i am a registered citizen myself for the last 17 years and well connected in the civil rights movements, i am uniquely position go after any insurance company that threatens a business with cancellation or pairing back coverage as a result of a label placed on an individual who the business is not allowed to banish. After all, it can be argued that the insurance company also doesn't care about convicted murderers, drug dealers, robbers and burglars and those who cause violence. There is no such treatment against those people. Only those on a list for public scrutiny. If it was a matter of perceived public safety, they'd have a list for everyone and openly encourage using the list to name and shame and banish. They don't. Of course, that's assuming that being on the list even lowers the crime rates, which of course again, in itself does not. Nearly everyone who's ever convicted of a sex crime goes onto live their lives the best they can under the legal circumstances and are no longer any kind of threat to anyone, except of course, legally.

  41. Nicholas Maietta:

    You and your wife are smart people. Do you by any chance know how many murders, drug dealers, burglars or violent people live near you? Just curious.

  42. Nicholas Maietta:

    What that deputy may have done is violate Federal Law and can be sued for deprivation of civil rights and can easily cost the taxpayers a lot of money. Do we want our civil servants costing taxpayers money?

    42 U.S. Code § 1983 - Civil action for deprivation of rights

    Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.
    (R.S. § 1979; Pub. L. 96–170, § 1, Dec. 29, 1979, 93 Stat. 1284; Pub. L. 104–317, title III, § 309(c), Oct. 19, 1996, 110 Stat. 3853.)

  43. Agammamon:

    My decision would be to let it go. And tell the Deputy where to shove his 'better to not do business with this person' advice. Its not his business. I'm willing to bet its not even his business to come by and notify you of people on the registry being in the area at all.

    But you should call up the Sheriff (better, write him an official request for clarification and send it as certified mail so you can show he got it) asking if the Sheriff were instructing you and where he gets the authority to do so, or advising you and where he gets the authority to do so, his qualifications to do so, and what criteria he uses to do so.

    And then keep that in your back pocket for use as Exhibit #1 in your defense.

    And yeah, that's because the registry is a joke - so much so that you can't even trust a 'highly dangerous' rating from it.

  44. Nicholas Maietta:

    He could turn around and sue and quite literally, profit big.

    The deputy and the Sheriff's department he's with.
    The insurance company for any real or perceived threat of losing coverage.
    Extortion. (Insurance company offers payouts under various circumstances in exchange for a premium payment. A threat of retracting that coverage over what they perceive is a liability issue, when it in fact is not, can equate to extortion in that he must continue to pay and comply to keep the coverage. They are asking him to break the law to continue coverage, which can be another major legal headache for the insurance company)
    Rackatery (RICO violations) for any pattern of this behavior towards companies they underwrite. If they do this regularly, they can be charged for federal RICO violations which carry harsh penalties.

    And if his business's reputation becomes tarnished and loses business over this issue, he'd be able to seek a much higher amount in damages from the Sheriff's office, the State for operating the registry and include anyone else who helped with tarnishing the company. Ironically, this could be far more profitable than operating his business as it sits currently.

    Not only that, but the registrant can also sue and win as well. Two separate lawsuits, just because people perceive being on the registry somehow makes a person a bad, bad, monster.

  45. Nicholas Maietta:

    You know, i never really thought of that. That does make a hell of a lot of sense. Smart bastards.

  46. Nicholas Maietta:

    Where's all the dots on the map for murderers, arsonists, burglars, drug dealers (who sell to kids), people who fire guns near playgrounds, gangbangers, et cetera. I guess they don't exist and we shouldn't worry about them because they are not on any map in most States.

  47. Nicholas Maietta:

    Insurance company may have just committed fraud as well as extortion and RICO violations. The deputy violated 42 U.S. Code § 1983 - Civil action for deprivation of rights.

    This is not a fun situation at all for the business owner. The laws are now beginning to hurt the everyday small business owner. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

  48. Agammamon:

    He already knows what his company policies are - *he writes them* after all.

  49. Agammamon:

    Not necessarily. A kid who just turned 17 having sex with another kid who's just about to turn 16 is a major crime.

  50. Jerryskids:

    Depending on the violation, the guy could also claim that his sexual deviance is a mental health issue and thereby trigger an ADA claim. As far as I know, alcoholics can claim protection for their addiction (but smokers can't for some strange reason) under the assumption that addicts aren't responsible for their actions. Hey, if I'm addicted to molesting children, it's not my fault and you can't hold it against me, right?