Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Consequences of Threatening Lifetime Sex Offender Registration To Juveniles

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against a school which allegedly terrified a teenage student into suicide after threatening him with a lifetime of sex offender registration while investigating whether he had a video recording of a sexual encounter with a female classmate.

While finding that the district hadn't broken the law, Judge Andrea Wood did criticize the district's interrogation of the student:
The judge, however, made it clear she was not condoning the way the interview was conducted. While it may have been legal for authorities to make Walgren think he could end up on a sex offender registry, it was not necessarily right to do so.
“The court’s determination that the individual defendant’s actions, as pleaded, are not objectively unreasonable for purposes of a Fourth Amendment analysis should not be understood as an endorsement of those actions by this Court,” Wood wrote. “Registration as a sex offender entails severe restrictions on a sex offender’s liberty. … And in Illinois, a juvenile convicted on charges related to child pornography could potentially be forced to remain a registered sex offender for the rest of his or her life.”
I have no quarrel with Judge Wood taking the time to make this aside. I've actually suggested judges should do this more often.

But here, I think we should reflect on how this incident and our reaction to it should shake our confidence not just in how the district behaved but also in the underlying legal rules the district was communicating. My understanding is that the district was not incorrect in telling the student that the conduct he was being investigated for (having a video recording of a sexual encounter with another student, taken while they were both minors) could result in him being placed on the sex offender registry for life. That, as best I can tell, was indeed a potential consequence under Illinois law.

If we think that consequence is too draconian, then the solution can't just be to tell school districts not to (accurately) communicate the legal consequences. The solution is to amend the law.

Obviously, the issue of minors making, possessing, and sharing recordings of their own sexual exploits with other minors is a serious one (the article doesn't indicate whether the female partner here consented to the recording, but if she didn't then it's more serious still). It needs a real response.

But there's little question that our criminal policies on sexual offenses -- especially relating to "ancillary" consequences like the sex offender registry -- have blown way past anything that could justified as either valid retribution or proportional deterrence. There are consequences that can be imposed on juvenile offenders that are adequately severe given the alleged wrong that do not entail lifetime registration on the sex offender registry (with all the attendant restrictions on personal liberty that carries). Here, as in many other cases in the criminal justice system (especially when dealing with minors), we need to think creatively and break our reliance on extreme punitive measures, and we should reject the false dichotomy that says hyper-criminalization is the only way to get "serious" about these wrongs.

In short: tragedies like this happen because of the reality of the law, not because that reality was relayed. If this feels like a tragic case, then it's the law, not the communication of the law, that needs changing.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Was someone claiming to be a victim in this case?