Sexual assault is such a charged topic that lawmakers are generally quick to say they are tough on sex offenders. States will compare themselves in terms of how tough they are on sex abuse. This tends to lead to catchall sex offender laws. All offenses are categorized and all offenders fit into one of the categories. Sounds pretty simple. Unfortunately there are cases that might meet the legal definitions but probably are the exception.
A current example is the case of Zach Anderson. Compliments of an online dating app, 19 year old computer science college student Zach met a girl that he thought was 17. Dating turned into sex and the eventual realization that she was actually 14. Zach was eventually arrested and charged with 4th degree sexual assault. Despite the girl’s admission that she lied about her age and her parents agreeing that this was consensual from their perspective, Zach was still convicted.
After a 90 day sentence, followed by 5 years of probation where he can no longer use a computer, he will still be registered as a sex offender for the next 25 years. Zach plead guilty but only because we were told he would be a candidate for Holmes Youthful Trainee Act status. The HYTA allows first-time offenders older than 17 but not yet 21 to avoid harsher penalties like the state-mandated 25-year listing on the sex offender registry. But the judge refused to listen to the defense attorney, Zach, or the parents of the girl who asked for charges to be dropped.
While this seems like an extreme example of misapplied sex offender laws, you have to look deeper to see the additional complexities. There are two factors in this case that worked against Zach. Most states assign additional offender risk to individuals who have sex with children who are 5 or more years their junior. He was 19, she was 14. While I don’t know the specific state law, most states have an age of consent of 16. As a 14 year old, the girl doesn’t have the legal ability to consent to sex. If the situation had played out differently, her parents could have actually have been charged if they knew about it and didn’t do anything about it. In this case, the consenting party is not the girl or her parents, it is the state. And the state says this is illegal.
So is the state right or wrong? It depends. There are additional factors that should be considered in cases like this. Here are some things related to sex offender laws that should have been considered:
Balance of Power – did the offending individual exercise excessive power over the other in terms of physical size, threats, position, etc?
Sexual Knowledge – Was the offender significantly more knowledgeable about sex?
Belief – did the offender know that he was breaking the law? Did the victim provide information that they could consent to sex?
Other Risk Factors – does the offender exhibit other risk factors – harming children or animals, fire setting, has a history of physical or sexual abuse against them?
Sexual Maturity – 16 or whatever age a state dictates as the age of consent is not a one size fits all despite the convenience of law. Legal laws and natural laws don’t always match. Some people mature faster than others, but the law doesn’t differentiate. Input from a psychologist should be included in cases like this.
Risk to the community – Laws are designed to protect us. Does the sentence do anything to protect us or rehabilitate the individual?
These are all factors that are either implicitly or explicitly applied to most sexual assault cases. This case looks more about someone wanting to follow the strict letter of the law, or simply not look soft on crime for election time. We need to have additional categories of sexual contact to support the gray area of teenage sex.
Zach’s parents currently have a petition to have his conviction overturned. If you feel this is not the way sex offender laws should be applied visit their site.