Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

April 30, 2014

Motels not required to conduct background checks

By Lisa Trigg Tribune-Star
Greensburg Daily News

---- — TERRE HAUTE – Finding a place to stay can be a tough challenge for people recently released from prison or jail.

The stigma attached to convicted felons — especially those convicted of sex crimes — means that the general public might object if a released offender moves in next door. But unless required by law, an ex-offender is not mandated to tell anyone that he or she has a criminal history, meaning the person staying in the motel room next door could be a convicted rapist, a violent offender, or a thief.

Even if the motel staff knows about a guest’s criminal history, there is no requirement that a motel or hotel or any other hospitality provider notify the public that a sex offender is staying on site.

According to the online offender registry website for Vigo County, numerous sex offenders list their residence as the Econo Lodge on Margaret Avenue in Terre Haute. The management at the motel declined to comment when asked by the Tribune-Star to discuss the guest policy there.

When the corporate office of Econo Lodge was contacted, a company representative stated that the Margaret Avenue motel was no longer an Econo Lodge franchise as of April 15, and the motel had 90 days in which to change its signage.

Shailesh Taylor — who was listed online as an agent of Omkara Hospitality LLC, which owns the Margaret Avenue motel — told the Tribune-Star that the motel owners had no comment about the status of the motel. They also declined to comment on an April 1 incident in which a convicted sex offender was arrested for allegedly abducting and attempting to rape a young girl who was residing at the motel with her family.

The Indiana Hotel and Lodging Association, which is billed on its website as the “voice of hospitality” in the state, also has no guidelines concerning sex offenders who rent rooms at hotels and motels.

Debbie Scott of the IHLA said the organization has some employment guidelines concerning people with criminal history, but no rules about renting rooms. However, the hotel and motel industry has become aware of human trafficking issues, Scott said, and has trained its staff on recognizing that pattern.

Legal buffer zone

When the Indiana Department of Correction releases an inmate from custody, the person must have a place to reside as a condition of release. It can be difficult for sex offenders to find housing because of the state restrictions that sexually violent predators and offenders against children must follow.

According to Parole Stipulations for Sex Offenders, the offender “must not reside, visit or be within 1,000 feet of public parks with playgrounds, pools, rides, and or nature trails; schools, daycare centers, public swimming pools, public beaches, theaters or similar locations where children are reasonably expected to gather or congregate, without the express prior written approval of a parole agent.”

In Terre Haute, that leaves few options for temporary housing.

Deputy Bernard Burns of the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department maintains the county’s sex offender website, a statewide database that lists the address and photos of people convicted of sex crimes who are currently required to be on the registry. He told the Tribune-Star that the Econo Lodge is the only motel in the city that fits into the 1,000-foot requirement that must be followed by “sexually violent predators” and “offenders against children.”

Burns noted that the state law does not have the same residency restriction for people classified simply as “sex offenders,” so people with that designation can live at any motel or other housing site, but they are also monitored by officials according to the terms of their release.

Offenders who have temporary residency, such as at a motel, must check in with Burns every seven days to keep their registry status current. Offenders with permanent residences must check in every 90 days, and others must check in annually or re-register if they change residences.

A person’s requirement to be on the registry can also expire, though some are required to be registered for life.

Behind closed doors

One law enforcement officer who has studied the issue of “disorder at budget motels” is Karin Schmerler, of the Chula Vista Police Department in California, who wrote a guide in 2005 for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.

Schmerler told the Tribune-Star her study found that management practices are the chief indicator of whether a motel will have problems that require police intervention. A wide variety of problems occur at budget motels, including disturbances, domestic violence, theft, public drinking, prostitution, drug dealing and use, fights, clandestine drug-lab operations, sexual assault and robbery, according to Schmerler’s report.

Many of the problems can be reduced through better motel management, design and regulation, she said. When told about the April 1 incident at the Econo Lodge in Terre Haute, Schmerler said it is not common for motels to do background checks on their guests, so it is not likely that motel management would know if a person has a criminal record.

The Econo Lodge management knew that at least a few of the guests had criminal histories because the motel owner had a verbal agreement with the Department of Correction to house some parolees through the DOC Assist program. That agreement was terminated at the request of motel management after the April 1 incident, but other convicted felons still reside there.

A check last week of the offender registry for Vigo County showed 13 offenders registered their address as being within one mile of the Econo Lodge. As of ThursdayApril 24, that hotel was listed as the residence of 10 people on the county’s sex offender registry; another offender lives just a block away, while two other offenders reside several blocks away, but within a 1-mile radius of the motel.

On that day, the Econo Lodge had more registered sex offenders staying there than any other single location in the city.