Eric Rinehart, a 34-year-old police officer in Middletown, Indiana, began consensual sexual relationships with two young women, ages 16 and 17. Rinehart was going through a divorce at the time, and in Indiana, he was doing nothing illegal, for 16 is the age of consent in the Hoosier state? Unethical? I tend to think so, but that isn’t part of the story.
One of the girls told Rinehart that she had posed for erotic photos for an earlier, presumably younger boyfriend, and suggested that she do the same for him. So Rinehart gave her his camera, with which she took the lascivious photos. This inspired Rinehart to take some more sexy photos and at least one video of both girls, which he downloaded to his computer.
For this, Rinehart was convicted on two federal charges of producing child pornography. A 1984 federal law had raised the federal age of consent for explicit sexual images of children from 16 to 18. Even though Rinehart was legally having sexual relations with the same women portrayed in the photos; even though, under Indiana law, he could have married them; even though he did not distribute the photos or intend to distribute them, and only had them on his computer for his own use—and even though the photos showed images of what he could see live, 3-D, and in the flesh any time he wanted to, U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton had to sentence Rinehart to 15 years in prison, thanks to mandatory minimum sentences, and there is no parole in the federal prison system.
Reason reporter Radley Balko, who uncovered this absurd story, provides an excellent analysis of the child pornography laws and mandatory sentencing. But the ethical breakdown here is primarily in one place, the federal prosecutor’s office.
Why would Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven DeBrota prosecute Rinehart for a federal felony under this set of facts? He broke the law, but the circumstances render the violation technical, contradictory, and meaningless. This is precisely the kind of situation in which prosecutorial discretion is essential. Moral matters aside, Rinehart did nothing wrong, and certainly nothing that warranted 15 years behind bars. DeBrota knew about the mandatory sentencing, knew that Rinehart was caught in a law that was never intended to net people like him.
Nevertheless, DeBrota set out to ruin Rinehart’s career and life, and absent a Presidential pardon (fat chance!), he appears to have succeeded. This is the criminal prosecution equivalent of the idiotic no-tolerance decisions in public schools, except that the consequences of this abandonment of compassion, fairness, and common sense is far, far worse. This isn’t justice; it is abuse of power, it is an inhumane travesty of law enforcement.
The misapplication of the vast power of a federal prosecutor can do more harm than ten crooked lawyers at their slimy, greedy worst. The unethical conduct of Steven DeBrota is far worse than anything his victim, Eric Rinehart, did or was accused of doing.