Saturday, May 25, 2013

Kaitlyn Hunt 101: Lessons in criminal law

The news is buzzing about 18-year-old Kaitlyn Hunt, who is being prosecuted in Florida for allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old female.  Many people are focusing on the same-sex nature of the teens' relationship; however, from a news standpoint, this completely misses the point.  The point is—or at least should be—that this type of prosecution is extremely common throughout our country, and the consequences are devastating.  In fact, if this CNN report is accurate, even the worst-case scenario for Kaitlyn Hunt is far better than what other young defendants are facing.  The situation is so bad that I recently published an entire book on our country’s overreaching, hyper-aggressive, and overly-punitive criminal justice system.  However, the Kaitlyn Hunt story will reach far more readers than my book ever will—so let’s take a closer look for some important lessons in criminal law.    

But before we begin, it’s important to understand that news stories (much like television dramas) rarely get the law right.  And even a casual read of the CNN report reveals some contradictions.  (For example, it begins by stating that “in Florida a person under the age of 16 is not legally able to give consent to sex”; however, quotes from the prosecutor, as well as the video that accompanies the printed story, indicate that Florida’s age of consent is actually 18 years, not 16 years.)  So, with that caveat in mind, let’s dive into the details.

First, this story reports that Ms. Hunt is being prosecuted for “having sex” with a 14-year-old.  In other states, and possibly even in Florida, it is a crime to have any sexual contact, which can include things like touching of the buttocks or breasts, even over the clothing.  In other words, what most people think of as normal (or even restrained) teenage activity could very well be criminal. 

Second, if Ms. Hunt decides to go to trial, CNN reports that she would face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison if convicted.  Other states are far worse.  In Wisconsin, for example, sexual contact of any kind (including touching over the clothing) with a person under 16 years of age is charged as sexual assault of a child—a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 40 or 60 years in prison depending on the age of the alleged victim.  (It's also a crime to have sexual contact with a person under 18 years of age, but the penalties are lower.) 

Third, had Ms. Hunt decided to take the plea offer, it “would have ensured that [she] avoided any term of incarceration and the stigma of being labeled a sex offender.”  In other states, there are no such guarantees.  In Wisconsin, for example, the judge is not bound by the sentence recommendation of the prosecutor; instead, once the defendant enters a plea, the judge can sentence her to the maximum penalty for that particular crime. (In fact, a few years in prison would be a very common sentence in cases where the alleged victim is only 14-years-old.) And as far as avoiding sex offender reporting, that’s not so easy in most states.  In Wisconsin, we even require some people to register as sex offenders when they have never been convicted, or even accused, of a sex crime.

Fourth, Ms. Hunt’s lawyer states that, “If this incident occurred 108 days earlier when she was 17, we wouldn't even be here.”  That law is actually quite lenient, comparatively.  In Wisconsin, 17-year-olds are automatically prosecuted as adults. Often, even 16-year-olds are prosecuted as adults.  Why?  Because, subject to some limitations, the test for whether a teenager can be prosecuted as an "adult" is whether they turned 17 by the time the prosecutor filed the complaint.  This means that they could have been 16, or even younger, at the time they allegedly committed the crime, yet still find themselves in adult criminal court.

So, in one sense, Ms. Hunt's case is nothing out of the ordinary; rather, this sort of prosecution is incredibly common—often for situations that are far less aggravated than the allegations against Ms. Hunt.  But in another sense, Ms. Hunt's case is unusual in that her charges, penalties, and plea offer are relatively lenient—as shocking as that may seem to those who aren't intimately familiar with the criminal justice system.  

In any case, CNN reports that Ms. Hunt is rejecting the plea offer and is heading to trial.  I wish her the best of luck.  Even though Florida is, by comparison, lenient, a conviction would still have consequences far more severe than anything Ms. Hunt is alleged to have done.

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