As a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney who represents many charged with sexual offenses, I was shocked and saddened by this story. You’ve probably heard about Zach Anderson—the 19-year-old (at the time) who became a registered sex offender after engaging in consensual sex with a girl he met through the mobile app "Hot or Not."
Why? Well the girl he met, who told him that she was 17, was actually only 14 years old. In Pennsylvania, because he’s over 18 and she is more than four years younger than him, he had committed the crime of statutory sexual assault. Even though the girl admitted to lying about her age and despite her family testifying on Zach’s behalf, telling the court that they did not want him to be labeled a sex offender, the sentencing court didn’t care.
In Michigan, where this happened, the girl’s lie cannot be used as a defense. However, in Pennsylvania, there is a "mistake of age" defense that can be used in certain circumstances. Even though she lied about her age and the sex was consensual, Zach Anderson was sentenced to 90 days incarceration, five years' probation and 25 years on the sexual offender registry. The sentence included the following conditions:
- He can’t use the Internet or own a cell phone for five years
- He can’t talk to anyone under the age of 17, except for immediate family
- He can’t be anywhere near a park, school or playground
- He will have to register as a sex offender until he is 44 years old
While this case was headline news at the time, it wasn't "new." This particular type of injustice—aside from the fact that the sex offender law is, in and of itself, unjust—has been happening all over the country since sexual offender registry laws were enacted. Sex offenses can take many different forms, from rape to indecent assault to internet sex crimes. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania sex offender laws do not discriminate among the types of crimes and cast a wide net over offenders. A 19-year-old kid who has consensual sexual contact with a 14-year-old, like Zach Anderson did, is considered just as dangerous as a convicted violent rapist or a repeat child abuser. The penalty in court may be more severe for the violent rapist, but the registration requirements and public stigma make it almost impossible for reintegration into society for both. Because this particular case was so tragic, hopefully the public outcry will pressure the legislature to take another look at these unjust laws and make changes.
The problem with hoping for a legislative change is that it’s nearly impossible to get a politician to appear like they are being soft on an alleged sex offender while not protecting our children. But, was Zach Anderson someone who needed to be shunned from society and kept away from children because he had consensual sex with someone that he thought was two years younger than him? Of course not. And yet, there are young people being caught in Megan's Law and SORNA's (Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act) ever-widening net in courtrooms all over America every day.
The Impact of a Sexual Offense Conviction
In the meantime, it’s important to know the consequences of being convicted of a sexual offense and being labeled a "sexually violent predator" under Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law. In addition to your photograph and your home and work/school address being listed online for all the world to see, the public will also know what you were charged with, whether you are in compliance with registration, and even have your license plate number and where you park your car. In some cases, a community flyer with your photo, home address and conviction information will be passed around your neighborhood for "community notification." You quite literally become a prisoner of society after you’ve served your period of incarceration. The ability to find a job becomes nearly impossible, as nobody wants to hire the local sex offender and risk losing business. And, even during a natural disaster, you would be required to keep your registration status current. Yes, even if the sky is falling, you are not excused.
Depending on the type of sexual offense, your age (whether you are an adult or juvenile), and an evaluation from the Pennsylvania Sexual Offender Assessment Board, it can affect your life more than just having to register. For example, in some cases, it can potentially:
- Make you ineligible for federal student loans to go to college
- Prohibit you from living anywhere near a school, daycare or park
- Prohibit you from using the Internet
- Prohibit you from living with and interacting with minor family members
- Make it difficult to obtain acceptance into a long-term care facility or nursing home
- Forfeit your pension (if you are a school teacher)
- Make it impossible to secure employment
This is why it is absolutely critical to contact a sex offense attorney the moment you are suspected or accused of committing any type of sexual offense. Do not speak to law enforcement concerning the allegations. Exercise your right to remain silent and only talk to a lawyer. It may seem like a harmless incident to you, but this one event can affect you for the rest of your life. This area of the law is complex and a conviction is life-changing. Don’t go it alone.
Editor's Note: In September, a Michigan judge agreed to remove Anderson's name from the sex offender registry.
This post originally appeared at thefishmanfirm.com/sex-offender-laws-will-change-your-life. The writer retains all copyrights.