Outrageous Prosecution: The Eric Rinehart Story

Asst. U.S. Attorney DeBrotas predecessors

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.

14 thoughts on “Outrageous Prosecution: The Eric Rinehart Story

  1. Jack — Do you know if the DOJ made any public statements as to why they decided to pursue this prosecution? Thanks.

  2. It is very diffilcult to concentrate on the point here; “misapplication of the vast power of a federal prosecutor “. Not only would I deem Rhinehart’s discretion as unethical, it’s out right disgusting. That an officer of the law would engage in this behavior, further corrupting young people that he should try to salvage. Yup, agreed prosecutor mis-applied his use of power, but I can hardly impact very much sympathy to Rhineharts unjust charges.

    • I don’t understand your comment. He broke the law as written and passed. The prosecutor’s duty is to apply discretion in the interests of fairness and justice, which in this case would mean not prosecuting. Nevertheless, there was a prosecution, which was a breach of power and discretion? What exactly is so hard to focus on?

  3. Jack:
    I can’t thank you enough for writing this article. Yes, these laws do need reform and yes, prosecutors ARE mis-using their elected rights to prosecute people for crimes. Crimes, that years ago would have been considered typical behavior, especially those of teen agers. Too many men, fathers, sons and brothers are going to prison for offenses like: viewing pictures on their personal computers, urinating in a bush while fishing, parking with their wives and having a “back seat moment”, teen sexual behaviors, sexting, passing by a window in the nude in their own homes, brushing up against someone accidentally, “adjusting” themselves in public.
    All of these “crimes” are being taken to extreme by prosecutors who want the public to fear and to vote them in to office for being “tough on crime”.
    Meanwhile, when these “offenders” leave incarceration, they are not allowed to live in neighborhoods, not allowed to find employment, can not go to school to better themselves, can not live in nursing homes, and most of them can not live with their families because of children or younger siblings still in the home. Now the government is trying to take away their rights to have medical insurance, receive social security or unemployment. A lot of these “offenders” are homeless with no where to go and no way to better themselves. It’s a sad world we live in!
    Thank you again for bringing this situation to light!
    Blessings to you Jack!

    • Federal prosecutors are not elected which raises further questions about the motivation of Assistant US Attorney DeBrota. However, if the photos were only viewed by Mr. Rinehart how did it come about that this prosecutor could even determine that there was a prosecutable offense? It would appear that either Mr. Rinehart had the images stored on a work computer which could be problematic for a police officer or to have shared them via the internet with other people or perhaps he or the women were attempting to sell the images. More facts are needed to draw a conclusion that the prosecutor immorally exceeded his prosecutorial discretion.

      • What? There was no evidence that he shared or tried to sell the images, and while having them on a work computer may have had job implications, it wouldn’t have changed the “crime.”
        There was no justification for the charge of having naked photo of women he was having legal consensual sex with. This isn’t that complicated.

  4. Jack,
    Your words: “This isn’t justice. It is an abuse of power.” You are 100% right. As you pointed out, this man was only taking a picture and looking at what he could look at LIVE anytime and NOT break any law. What he was doing was NOT illegal in his state. Unreal and unjust that he lost 15 years of his life, his reputation and is facing a very sad future because of an over- zealous prosecuter. Thank God for people like you who are not afraid to stand up and call FOUL when stories like this come out. The world needs many more like you!

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  6. This case was brought to Radley Balko’s attention by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a sentencing reform group that collects hundreds of horror stories.

  7. I lived acrossed the street from Eric Rhinehart during this outragous act he committed. However, can someone please explain to me how the hell is THE TOWN OF Middletown IN, HAS HIM WORKING AS A RESERVE OFFICER AS OF THIS MONTH???????? How can this even be legal, when you cannot apply for certain Jail Careers if you have any trace of police record? The other question is, why is Mr. Rhinehart NOT LISTED as a SEXUAL OFFENDER??? RIDDLE ME THIS?????

  8. Prior to 2003 (?) 2423(b) made it a federal crime to “travel in interstate commerce” with the intent to commit legal state behavior with persons under the age of 18. However, the Legislature amended that statute to reflect the obvious; every state has different ages of consent.
    With the progress made in U.S. Supreme Court decisions about cruel and unusual punishment it would seem the statutes in play for Mr. Rinehart are in violation of those decisions. It would seem that, given the opportunity, the U.S. Supreme Court would decide the same about filming, recording or chiseling in stone the inter-personal activities of consenting individuals. However, don’t take any such images to the Internet or across state lines.

  9. I have a son serving 240 months in federal prison for manufacturing child pornography according to the prosecution. My son was 23 at the time of his prosecution and there were 3 different girls 15 and 16 years old who were at some level in a relationship with him at different times. One of the girls, the one who was 16 at the time, was engaged to be married to my son but tragically died in a car accident together with her mother. She was deceased at the time of my son’s prosecution but was nonetheless considered one of his victims. These were local kids who all grew up together in the same community and were mutual friends with brothers and sisters and other friends all socializing together. This was not a situation like that of a 50 year old man trolling the internet in hopes of finding a young girl to entertain prurient thoughts or intentions of producing child pornography. My son was caught with cocaine and subsequently the computer he had in his possession at the time of his arrest was found to have short video images of him and his girlfriends having sex together. His computer was thoroughly penetrated and searched by the federal government and no evidence was found that he ever used the internet to obtain pornography nor did he ever attempt to share or distribute the photos and videos at any time. They were simply stored on his memory sticks and hard drive as an electronic photo album as is the way most personal photos are stored in contemporary society. Had he not taken those pictures and videos, he would never have been charged with a federal crime simply for having sex with the girls as they were of an age where they could have married with parental consent in the State of Wisconsin. Still, the prosecution represented to the court that my 23 year old son was a dangerous sexual predator and asked for and was granted by the court a draconian sentence that should be reserved for the most vile sexual predators and child pornographers. But with the sentence my son is presently serving with virtually no hope for mercy or relief, there is no way to distinguish between his behavior and that of the behavior of the most egregious and true child pornographers manufacturing and distributing pornography for profit. In fact we have seen case law where the commercial pornographers have received sentences far less by decades than what my son has received. The federal system is completely out of control and conservative judges and prosecutors are thoroughly destroying lives simply because they can. I know exactly how Eric Rinehart and his family feels.

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