Another Case Of Sex Offender Registry Insanity

A 19 year old from Indiana faces a quarter century as a registered sex offender because he met a girl who lied about her age.

Handcuffs Jail

Via Reason, we have the story of a 19 year old guy in Indiana  who met a girl online and is now facing criminal sanctions that will basically ruin his life for the foreseeable future:

Computer science student Zach Anderson, 19, met a girl, 17, on the “Hot or Not?” app. He was from Elkhart, Indiana. She was 20 minutes over the border in Niles, Michigan. They hooked up. Once.

But it turned out the girl was really 14. She’d lied to Anderson and also in her profile. Now Zach sits in a Michigan jail, serving 90 days. When he gets out he will be on the Sex Offender Registry for 25 years.

Does anyone thinking treating him this way is necessary to keep kids safe? Anderson and his family certainly don’t.

Neither does his supposed underage victim. The girl readily admitted that she lied about her age, and in this WSBT-TV interview her mother admitted that Anderson “didn’t do anything my daughter didn’t do.” Everyone agrees the encounter was completely consensual. The only reason the police became involved at all is because the girl suffers from epilepsy, and when she didn’t come home as quickly as expected her mom worried and called the cops for help.

In this excellent South Bend Tribune article, the mom told a reporter that she didn’t just ask the judge for leniency, “we asked him to drop the case.”

But court records show that Berrien County District Court Judge Dennis Wiley (who once jailed a woman for 10 days over Christmas because she cursed while paying a traffic ticket in the county clerk’s office) paid none of the participants any mind. At sentencing he told Anderson, “You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women to meet and have sex with. That seems to be part of our culture now: meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.”

Now, in addition to registering as a sex offender, Anderson will spend five years on probation, during which time he will not be allowed to live in a home where there is internet access or a smart phone. He will obviously have to change his major. And he is forbidden to talk to anyone under age 17, except his brothers.

It’s worth noting that in both Michigan, where Zach is from, and in Indiana, where the girl is from, the age of consent is 16, and in Indiana (but not in Michigan) there is a close-in-age exception to the law which applies as long as both parties are under 18. In both states, the relationship between these two would have been totally legal if the girl was seventeen years old as she claimed to be. When the charge is statutory rape, though, it’s common knowledge that none of this matters. The fact that the relationship was consensual is irrelevant in these cases because the law assumes that the minor was legally incapable of consenting to a sexual relationship. Similarly, the fact that the minor lied about her age is also irrelevant because the law defines the relationship as what is generally referred to as a status crime, meaning that it is illegal because the victim falls into a certain group. In that case, the fact that said victim consented, lied about her age, likely appeared to be at least 16 or older (though we can’t know that for sure because her photos are not shared with the press since the is a minor), and may have even initiated the encounter for all we know are not defenses to the case. Indeed, even if this girl had presented Zach Anderson with a fake ID showing her to be 17 years old, he still wouldn’t have a defense. Society has made the determination that, even if all of that is true, the adult is still responsible if they have a sexual relationship with a minor and that’s unlikely to change.

At the same time, though, all of those facts, combined with the fact that there has been no allegation at all that the girl was forced into the relationship, and the sentence that Anderson now faces make this case particularly egregious. Zach Anderson will now spent a quarter century on the sex offender registry. Unless there’s something in Michigan law that would allow him to petition to be removed at a future date, that means that he will be shut out of a whole host of occupations, that he may well be unable to rent an apartment in some locations, and that his neighbors in whatever neighborhood he lives in up until he’s in his mid-40s will know that he’s on this list and that, depending on how the offense is listed, he had a sexual relationship with a minor. We can agree, I suppose, that Anderson acted foolishly to say the least. In reality, though, is a relationship between a 19 year-old and a 17 year-old really that horrible assuming that it isn’t illegal? In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the title characters are no older than their young teens — and some sources put Juliet at 13 and Romeo at somewhere north of 17. Yes, this is fiction, but it’s also considered a classic of Western literature  and, at the time it was written and for hundreds of years thereafter, relationships between what we would now consider “children” of that age were commonplace. Even conceding the point that Anderson broke the law, the evidence seems to be that he didn’t think he was breaking the law. It’s somewhat flabbergasting that he should have a substantial portion of his life essentially ruined because of a dumb mistake. As Jazz Shaw notes in his post on this case, the fact that the girl involved is only fourteen probably means that we can’t really expect the legal system to just walk away from this case entirely, but why Anderson needs to be on the sex offender registry because of this is something I just can’t understand.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Sudo Nimgh says:

    When the charge is statutory rape, though, it’s common knowledge that none of this matters.

    Except for all the female adult schoolteachers who rape their male students…then they aren’t held to that same standard…

    Blame it on whatever cultural foundation you want, it’s still a travesty of justice both ways…punishing this young man so disproporitanly to the crime, and not punishing these rapists but let them go with a wink and a nod, or a pitful “she’s the real victim here”….

    We need to balance the power of the judge to hand down decisions based on their own judgement with rationality in the actual laws and sentencing guidelines themselves.

    And because it was referenced, how is this:

    But court records show that Berrien County District Court Judge Dennis Wiley (who once jailed a woman for 10 days over Christmas because she cursed while paying a traffic ticket in the county clerk’s office)

    not a breach of the First Amendment?

    That’s crazy! I can understand it if the clerk was threatened, but cursing in general should not be a crime, and judges should not be able to punish them for it.

  2. CSK says:

    Hmmm. Based on the judge’s comments in this case, what he really seems to object to is people in general having sex, not just the under-aged.

  3. Aaron says:

    Michigan _used_ to have a close-in-age exception. I thought it was a reasonable way to deal with this situation. Although, IIRC, it was a 2-year sliding window, or 2-year wide age groups, so that adjacent age groups weren’t considered statutory rape. But that was 20 years ago.

  4. DrDaveT says:

    Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.

    Correct, judge — but not in the way you think…

    As a legal note, how is it not possible for the plaintiff to decline to press charges? Is the state automatically the plaintiff in statutory rape cases?

  5. @DrDaveT:

    In most states, in cases involving minors, and usually in domestic violence cases, the decision to press charges is not up to the victim.

  6. wr says:

    As good Americans, we must all acknowledge that sex is a terrible and disgusting thing, that women must be protected from it at all times, especially after age 18 when a magical switch goes off in their bodies and makes them prey to filthy urges — unlike every day before that when they exist in a state of perfect moral purity and will only have sex when forced or seduced into it by vile, corrupt men.

    Yet another reason why America is the greatest country on God’s green earth!

  7. CSK says:

    @DrDaveT:

    The term “plaintiff” is usually used to designate the complainant in a civil case. But beyond that, it’s the state who presses the criminal charges against the defendant, not the victim.

    The victim can refuse to testify, in which case the prosecutor is generally left with not much choice but to drop the charges, particularly if there’s nothing else to inculpate the defendant.

  8. aFloridian says:

    That seems to be part of our culture now: meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.”

    Wow – not your call your honor. It almost sounds as though the judge is setting aside common sense in order to punish young people for normal behaviors he finds obscene. Not surprising.

    Now, in addition to registering as a sex offender, Anderson will spend five years on probation, during which time he will not be allowed to live in a home where there is internet access or a smart phone.

    Isn’t this cruel and unusual punishment? No internet for five years? Why not cut off my air conditioning and make me wear pink underwear and we’ll just pretend I’m in Maricopa County?

  9. DrDaveT says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    In most states, in cases involving minors […] the decision to press charges is not up to the victim.

    Nor up to the victim’s legal guardians, apparently.

    Thanks for the clarification, Doug. And thanks @CSK: for the terminology correction.

  10. Hal_10000 says:

    The more I see cases like this, the more I think the existence of the registry is the problem. I think it was a study in Georgia that concluded that 70% of those on the registries are not dangerous. They have done little to make the public safer but done plenty to give prosecutors another way to wreck someone’s life. If someone is a predator, he belongs in jail. If he’d not dangerous, what’s the point in branding him with a scarlet letter (one that has gotten several people killed when some vigilante decided to off someone on the list)?

  11. Matt says:

    @Hal_10000: The problem is the registry was originally pitched and passed as a way to keep track of the worst of the worst. Of course once you give the law enforcement industry an inch it takes a mile. So now we have people who had sex with a girl 1 year younger then them on the same list as people who molested toddlers…

    Seriously a while back I got a warning in the mail about a sexual predator that was moving into my neighborhood (more like 4 city blocks away) and that I should be SCARED CAUSE HE”S POTENTIALLY AWFUL AND SUPER DANGEROUS.. Turns out the fellow was arrested for having sex with his 16 year old GF when he turned 18. She turned 17 a matter of months later.

    Friend of mine almost had the exact same thing happen. My friend had met the girl and had been dating for over a year when the parents of the girl filed for a divorce. Well one of the parents didn’t like that his daughter didn’t take his side in the divorce so he reported my friend for statutory rape. Of course my friend ended up arrested and was on the verge of having his life ruined forever when the parent came to his senses and stopped it. Since I lived in a small town and the parent was a cop he was able to get the charges dropped somehow.

  12. Cristina says:

    @Hal_10000: It’s not the existence of the registry that’s the problem. It’s:

    1. The age of consent laws. They’re ridiculous in the US. Look for such laws in other, Western counrties and see the difference. For example, there would have been nothing illegal about this situation in my country, Chile, whatsoever. As there shouldn’t be.
    2. Such a registry should only be reserved for actual CHILDREN sexual abuse. Seriously, where has common sense gone?.