Skenazy: When a court turns a teen into a sex offender

Lenore Skenazy

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 Anderson sits in a Michigan jail, serving 90 days. When he gets out, he will be on the sex offender registry for 25 years.

Does anyone think treating him this way is necessary to keep kids safe? Anderson and his family certainly don’t. But neither does his “victim” — or her mom.

The girl readily admitted that she had lied about her age, and in a WSBT-TV interview, her mother admitted, “(Anderson) has not done anything my daughter didn’t do.” Everyone agrees the encounter was completely consensual. The only reason the police became involved at all is that the girl’s worried mother called them for help because the girl has epilepsy and didn’t come home as quickly as expected.

In an article in the South Bend Tribune, the mom told a reporter that she hadn’t just asked the judge for leniency. “We asked him to drop the case,” she said.

But court records show that Berrien County District Court Judge Dennis Wiley (who once jailed a woman for 10 days over Christmas because she had 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.”

Now, in addition to registering as a sex offender, Anderson will spend five years on probation, during which time he will not be allowed to live in a home where there is Internet access or a smartphone. He will obviously have to change his major. And he is forbidden to talk to anyone younger than 17, except his brothers.

I spoke to Anderson’s dad, Les Anderson. The family is about to try to withdraw the original plea deal his son agreed to, because, he says, “the prosecutor violated the plea.”

You see, in Michigan, there is a leniency provision for first-time offenders younger than 21. It keeps them off the registry. As part of the plea deal, the prosecutor had agreed not to take a position on whether to apply the provision to Anderson. But when it came time for sentencing, the prosecutor reminded the judge that he had denied leniency in similar cases twice before.

That struck defense lawyer Scott Grabel as not exactly neutral. “He did us a favor,” says Grabel, “because now we have a basis to withdraw the plea.”

I chatted with Grabel, too. He says that if the case is tried anew, he would like to hold off for another six to nine months, because by then it’s possible that the Michigan Supreme Court will have decided to let defendants use “she lied about her age” as a component of their defense.

Right now, 20 states allow this. In the other 30, Grabel says, you can turn to your would-be hookup and say, “ ‘Look, I want to see a passport or driver’s license,’ and I’d say that’s pretty diligent of you,” but if the ID is fake and she is actually underage, you can still be convicted of statutory rape.

Let’s hope Michigan makes that change. In the meantime, Judge Wiley should realize that just because you met someone online does not mean you are a depraved fiend who deserves 25 years on the sex offender registry.

Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”