Editorial: Michigan's sexual consent laws need clarity

The Detroit News

Michigan needs to draw clearer legal lines between predatory sexual behavior and teenage hanky-panky. 

The need for clarification of sexual consent laws is highlighted by a recent court case involving a 52-year-old man who exposed a 16-year-old boy to pornography.

The defendant was charged under a Michigan law that makes it a crime to use a minor to create sexually explicit material. A minor is defined as a person under age 18.

Kelvin Willis challenged his Wayne County Circuit Court conviction, claiming he merely showed the boy explicit material and was not trying to create pornography.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but in doing so noted a glaring inconsistency in Michigan laws designed to protect children from exploitation. Specifically, the justices pointed out that various laws appear in conflict over whether the age of consent in Michigan is 16 or 18.

The law that Willis was charged under defines a child as under age 18. But Michigan law in general puts the age of consent at 16.

As the court noted, such inconsistency could be used to convict an 18-year-old for sexual activity with a willing partner who is a year younger. It also creates a legal loophole for predators, who can claim their behavior was legal because the victim involved was over age 16.

In addition, the state doesn't provide a concrete definition of consent — whether it must be verbally given, or can be assumed if no objection is raised. This compounds the problem.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack joined Justice David Viviano in the dissent, citing lack of evidence for the conviction. Viviano said "the Court of Appeals' interpretation raises the question of whether the Legislature intended (the pornography law) to raise the age of consent in Michigan from 16 to 18 years old."

Clarifying the law would be a good step toward cleaning up the sex offender registry, which now contains 44,000 names.

Not all of those on the list are predators. Many earned a spot as older teens for having consensual sex with partners a year or two younger than themselves.  

The registry serves no purpose if it tosses teenage sweethearts together with sexual predators. But the current loopholes in the law make that a distinct possibility.  

Mutually consenting teenagers should not be added to the sex offender registry. At the same time, predatory adults should be punished for pressuring younger people, even those who can legally consent, into sexual activity. 

The Michigan Legislature should fix these discrepancies in the legal code to assure the law is clear and consistently applied.