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July 17, 2007

Utah Supreme Court Resists Creating Another Genarlow Wilson

by Doug Mataconis

Via Eugene Volokh, comes news of a decision from the Utah Supreme Court regarding the state’s attempted prosecuted of a 12 year old boy and thirteen year old girl for committing sexual abuse on a child, with each other:

When she was thirteen years old, Z.C. engaged in consensual sex with a twelve-year-old boy and became pregnant. The state prosecutor chose to file delinquency petitions against both Z.C. and the boy for sexual abuse of a child under [State] Code section 76-5-404.1 [basically, in this context, any sexual touching of someone under 14 -EV], a crime that would constitute a second degree felony if committed by an adult….

Because we conclude that the legislature could not possibly have intended to punish both children under the child sex abuse statute for the same act of consensual heavy petting, we hold that applying the plain language of the statute in this case produces an absurd result. [Footnote, slightly moved: It is undisputed that Z.C. and the boy engaged in more than just sexual touching, but we must analyze the absurd result question in the context of the law actually applied and the act with which the State chose to charge Z.C., not the law that might have been applied or the act with which the State could have charged Z.C.]

Sexual abuse of a child is one of the most heinous crimes recognized by our penal code. The gravity of this crime is reflected by the fact that it is punished as a second degree felony if committed by an adult. Child sex abuse merits serious penalties because of the extreme psychological harm that the perpetrator causes the victim. Therefore, like all forms of sexual assault, child sex abuse presupposes that a single act of abuse involves a victim, whom the statute endeavors to protect, and a perpetrator, whom the statute punishes for harming the victim.

The State, however, applies [State] Code section 76-5-404.1 in an unprecedented manner. By filing delinquency petitions for child sex abuse against both participants for sexually touching one another, the State treats both children as perpetrators of the same act. In this situation, there is no discernible victim that the law seeks to protect, only culpable participants that the State seeks to punish. We know of no other instance in which the State has attempted to apply any sexual assault crime to produce such an effect.

[Footnote: The primary fail-safe against the absurd application of criminal law is the wise employment of prosecutorial discretion, a quality that is starkly absent in this case. While the State makes no attempt to defend the prosecution’s charging decision, it suggests that the particular offense selected by the prosecutor as the basis for the delinquency petition is not significant because a juvenile delinquency adjudication is not a criminal conviction, but merely a means to bring the juvenile within the guiding supervision of the juvenile court. If this is truly the case, it begs the question of why the prosecutor could not have accomplished the intended result by basing the delinquency petition on a victimless offense that more accurately fits the conduct at issue.]

We acknowledge that the legislature has demonstrated its intent to punish both participants in victimless, extramarital sexual activity under [State]’s adultery and fornication statutes. However, these statutes differ from sexual assault crimes, such as child sex abuse, in both the theory and degree of punishment. Rather than punishing an actor who has perpetrated a crime against a victim, these laws demonstrate the legislature’s disapproval of the acts of both participants for violating a moral standard. Because these crimes do not involve a victim, they involve a lesser degree of punishment. Both adultery and fornication are punishable as class B misdemeanors. Thus, while the legislature clearly could have intended some degree of simultaneous culpability for both Z.C. and the twelve-year-old boy under the fornication statute in order to discourage their admittedly reckless and age-inappropriate behavior, it is absurd to conclude that the legislature intended to simultaneously punish both children for child sex abuse, a crime that clearly envisions a perpetrator and a victim.

A review of the floor debates regarding the 1983 enactment of the [statute] reveals no evidence that the legislature contemplated application of the statute to situations where the same child was both victim and perpetrator. Although we generally do not consult legislative history where the meaning of the statute is clear, after finding that the plain meaning has been applied in an absurd manner, we seek to confirm that the absurd application was indeed unintended by the legislature….

We conclude that the legislature could not have intended the child sex abuse statute to be applied to punish Z.C. for the conduct at issue. And the fact that this is a juvenile court disposition, in which the judge enjoys considerable latitude in crafting punishments and assigning state services designed to help the child, does not change our conclusion. No amount of judicial lenity to compensate for the absurd application of the law changes the fact that the application of the law was absurd to begin with. Moreover, labeling Z.C. with the moniker of “child abuser,” even within the juvenile court system, can have serious consequences that were not intended by the legislature. A delinquency adjudication for sexual abuse of a child can lead to sentencing enhancements for any offenses Z.C. might commit while she is a juvenile or even as an adult if her juvenile record is not expunged. Such an adjudication also has the potential to affect any civil proceedings related to the custody of her child or any future attempts to seek child support from the father.

We therefore vacate Z.C.’s adjudication. We stress, however, that our holding is narrowly confined to the application of [State] Code section 76-5-404.1 in situations where no true victim or perpetrator can be identified. Even among children under the age of fourteen, there are unfortunately situations where an older or more physically mature child abuses a younger or smaller child. In cases where there is an identifiable distinction between the perpetrator and the victim, it is manifestly logical to conclude that the legislature intended to include such acts within the scope of [State] Code section 76-5-404.1. In Z.C.’s case, however, where both children were under the age of fourteen and were of similar age, where both children met the intent requirement of the statute, and where there was no evidence of any coercion or force, we conclude that application of the child sex abuse statute produces an absurd result….

Even though the plain language of section 76-5-404.1 allows Z.C. to be adjudicated delinquent for sexual abuse of a child, we conclude that the filing of delinquency petitions against both participants produces an absurd result not intended by the legislature because, like all sexual assault crimes, the statute presupposes a perpetrator and a victim. We therefore hold that the juvenile court erred in denying Z.C.’s motion to dismiss the delinquency petition. We remand this matter to the court of appeals with instructions to remand it to the juvenile court to vacate Z.C.’s delinquency adjudication.

In other words, no rational review of state laws against sex crimes against children should be held to apply to a case where both of the participants in the act are, in fact, children.

Approve of it, or disapprove of it, as you wish. But there’s no rational reason that something like this should be treated as a felony.

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  • Thomas Lawrence

    This is much different from Genarlow’s case. Genarlow was over the age of consent, whereas the girl was not. In this case, both were literally children and under the age of consent. Had Genarlow also been under the age of consent, or had his partner been over that age, he would not have been charged. Consider what would have happened, had Genarlow been just a few months older. He would have been over 18, he would have been convicted, and we would never had heard his name in the media. That is obviously not the same as these poor children in Utah.

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