Guilty for believing a lie

Computer science student Zach Anderson, 19, met a girl, 17, on the “Hot or Not?” app. He was from Elkhart, Indiana. She was 20 minutes over the border in Niles, Michigan. They hooked up. Once.

But it turned out the girl was really 14. She’d lied to Anderson and also in her profile. Now Zach sits in a Michigan jail, serving 90 days. When he gets out he will be on the Sex Offender Registry for 25 years. …

The girl readily admitted that she lied about her age, and in this WSBT-TV interview her mother admitted that Anderson “didn’t do anything my daughter didn’t do.” Everyone agrees the encounter was completely consensual. …

[T]he mom told a reporter that she didn’t just ask the judge for leniency, “we asked him to drop the case.”

But court records show that Berrien County District Court Judge Dennis Wiley (who once jailed a woman for 10 days over Christmas because she cursed while paying a traffic ticket in the county clerk’s office) paid none of the participants any mind. At sentencing he told Anderson, “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.” [via Reason.com]

This seems like a clear case of judicial overreach, by a judge who has a history of judicial overreach.

The judge is right about our “hook up” culture. It’s one of many trends that is unraveling our society. But what’s the point of ruining the boy’s life when everyone, on both sides, say the charges should be dismissed entirely?

That said, that’s not the reason I posted on this story. What I want to take on are the ramifications of this girl lying about her age.  She said she was 17 when she was only 14. The boy believed her, and there is no suggestion from anyone that he had any reason to doubt her. It’s extremely unlikely that he would have been given such a harsh sentence if she were in fact 17, so how does it make sense to punish him for relying on something she claimed?

We’re talking about minors, so I’m pretty sure the girl didn’t legally commit fraud. But what she did amounts to the same thing. According to the legal definition,

Fraud must be proved by showing that the defendant’s actions involved five separate elements: (1) a false statement of a material fact,(2) knowledge on the part of the defendant that the statement is untrue, (3) intent on the part of the defendant to deceive the alleged victim, (4) justifiable reliance by the alleged victim on the statement, and (5) injury to the alleged victim as a result.

As far as I can tell, the girl’s lie checks every one of those boxes. She committed fraud, if not in the technical, legal sense (due to her being a minor), certainly in the way most people understand it.

Now, I’m not saying she should be prosecuted or punished for lying about her age. I am saying that it makes no sense to prosecute and punish someone else for believing her. I’ve seen this issue come up in a lot of cases, usually involving an underage girl who claims to be 18, and a guy who gets convicted of statutory rape because he believed her. It makes no sense to dole out some heavy-handed punishment on the guy while doing nothing to the girl whose lie is the only thing that made it a crime.

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