Salt Lake City - Utah Supreme Court justices acknowledged Tuesday that they were struggling to wrap their minds around the concept that a 13-year-old girl could be both an offender and a victim for the same act – in this case, having consensual sex with her 12-year-old boyfriend.
The Ogden, Utah, girl was put in this odd position because she was found guilty of violating a state law that prohibits sex with someone under age 14. She also was the victim in the case against her boyfriend, who was found guilty of the same violation by engaging in sexual activity with her.
“The only thing that comes close to this is dueling,” said Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins, noting that two people who take 20 paces and then shoot could each be considered both victim and offender.
And Chief Justice Christine Durham wondered if the state Legislature had intended the “peculiar consequence” that a child would have the simultaneous status of a protected person and an alleged perpetrator under the law.
The comments came in oral arguments on a motion asking the high court to overturn the finding of delinquency – the legal term in juvenile court for a conviction – against Z.C., who became pregnant after she and her boyfriend engaged in sex in October 2003.
State authorities filed delinquency petitions in July 2004, alleging that each had committed sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony if committed by an adult.
The girl appealed the petition, saying her constitutional right to be treated equally under the law had been violated.
Her motion noted that for juveniles who are 16 and 17, having sex with others in their own age group does not qualify as a crime.
Juveniles who are 14 or 15 and have sex with peers can be charged with unlawful conduct with a minor, but the law provides for mitigation when the age difference is less than four years, making the offense a misdemeanor.
For adolescents under 14, though, there are no exceptions or mitigation and they are never considered capable of consenting to sex.
A juvenile court judge denied the motion by Z.C., who then admitted to the offense while preserving her right to appeal to a higher court. The boy did not appeal.
The Utah Court of Appeals last December upheld the judge’s refusal to dismiss the allegation, saying the law’s “rigorous protections” for younger minors include protecting them for each other. Z.C. then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
At Tuesday’s arguments, Matthew Bates, an assistant Utah attorney general, argued the prosecution of the girl was not unreasonable. He said the statute in question is designed to prevent sex with children who are 13 and younger, even if the other person is in the same age group.
By passing that law, legislators were sending a message, Bates said: Sex with or among children is unacceptable.
Randall Richards, the girl’s attorney, argued that prosecuting children under a law meant to protect them is illogical.
“A child (victim) cannot also be a perpetrator in the exact same act,” Richards said.
The Utah Supreme Court will issue a ruling later.
This was the result
In short, the Utah Supreme Court concluded that while the children violated this particular law as it is worded, the law was not intended to apply to such cases.
Here is an excerpt from the opinion:
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.