Reason tells the troubling story of computer science majoring college student Zach Anderson, 19, who made the acquaintance of a girl on the “Hot or Not?” app. He was in Indiana, she was in Michigan, a short drive away. They arranged a sexual liaison, a one-time hook-up. The girl lied about her age, though, in person and on her website profile: she was really just 14, just like innocent Larry “Pinto” Kroger’s seductive girl friend in “Animal House” (shown above in her last-second moment of candor*) and thus unable to legally consent to sex. Unlike Pinto, Zach’s fate wasn’t amusing. He was arrested and tried.
The girl admitted that she lied about her age, and her parents didn’t blame Zach. They asked that the case be dropped. It wasn’t. Without a defense on the facts of the case, Zach made a plea bargain, pleading guilty in exchange for the prosecutor’s promise not to oppose his request for leniency under a Michigan provision for first-time sex offenders under 21 that allows them to avoid off the sex offender registry. The prosecutor then double-crossed him, technically not opposing leniency but reminding the judge that he had rejected such appeals to the leniency provision in the past. (Yes, that is opposing it. Yes, that’s unethical. Yes, the prosecutor is an asshole.)
Then Berrien County District Court Judge Dennis Wiley sentenced Anderson to 90 days in jail and placed him on the Sex Offender Registry for 25 years, lecturing him:
“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.”
After he gets out of jail, Anderson will spend five years on probation, prevented from living in a home where there is internet access or a smart phone. His major is now impossible; this will affect his entire career. He is forbidden to talk to anyone under age 17, except his brothers, and if he does, he will go back to jail.
Obviously, this is a wildly excessive and unjust result, and Zach stands only fourth in line regarding blame, fault, and accountability, fifth if you count a legislature that passed the careless law he was convicted under.
Every adult has a duty to know whom he can and cannot have legal sex with; there is nothing wrong with the theory behind statutory rape laws. A victim’s plausible misrepresentation of the power to consent to sex, however, should be a full and complete defense to a charge of statutory rape. In cases like this the adult is the victim unless the girl looked 12, he suspected that she was lying and any reasonable person would. That does not appear to have been the case.
The judge, from his statement, appears to have thrown the book at Zach for conduct that he disapproves of but that is perfectly legal. His ethical and moral disapproval of internet hook-ups is a bias, and if he couldn’t get past it to issue a fair sentence, then he had an obligation to hand the case over to an ethical judge who could.
The prosecutor, as I already noted. showed himself to be an asshole by his bait-and-switch plea deal. He should be fired for that stunt. In more general terms, his ethical and competent conduct in this case would have been to execute prosecutorial discretion and drop the case. Who is served by a prosecution like this? Certainly not society, and even if there were some arguable benefits, like sending a warning to horny computer nerd on the prowl, the harm done to Zach Anderson is far beyond anything the justice system should use to send a message like “Make sure your hook-ups bring a valid birth certificate and at least one adult who vouches for their age.”
The girl, meanwhile, should face legal consequences for this, as should any under-age individual who misrepresents his or her age to have sex. If there are no laws that allow prosecution for this conduct, there should be. Obviously ethics alone won’t work: teens are almost as incapable of ethical analysis as they are legal consent.
As for Zack, his lawyer is seeking to withdraw his guilty plea because of the prosecutor’s unethical breach. Yes, Zack Anderson behaved irresponsibly, but the justice system has thoroughly disgraced itself.
* I have been corrected: Pinto’s date was 13, not 14.