Online dating is now a $2 billion industry. More than 49 million in the U.S. have tried online dating, each customer spending nearly $250 a year for the service.
But there are pitfalls and perils in what Berrien County, Michigan Judge Dennis Wiley described as a culture of “meet, hook-up, have sex, sayonara, totally inappropriate behavior.”
The FBI warns that sexual predators, scam artists, and gigolos stalk online dating service looking for potential victims. The scam artists, for example, seek out women over 40 who are divorced, widowed, and/or disabled. After weeks, even months, of fake romantic interest, they present their scam.
The most startling statistic is that the overwhelming majority of online profiles contain inaccuracies (80 percent by some sources). So, apparently, truth gets lost in the expectations
Ask Zach A. This 19-year-old Indiana teenager was recently sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to register as a sex offender. Why? Because he met a 14-year-old girl who claimed to be 17 years of age and had sex with her. Zach met the underage teenager while trolling through an online dating app called “Hot or Not.” She lived in the neighboring state of Michigan where they had sex.
Then Zach got busted. The girl’s mother got worried when her epileptic daughter missed dinner. Her older sister told the mother about Zach. The mother called the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department that was already looking for another 19-year-old. Thinking Zach was that suspect, deputies swarmed on the girl’s family residence where they arrested Zach. He was charged with having sex with a minor, despite the girl telling the authorities that she had lied about her age.
Zach ended up before Judge Wiley who sentenced the first offender to 90 days in jail, five years of probation, and a lifetime on sex offender registries in both Michigan and Indiana.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you my age,” the underage girl said in a letter to the Anderson family. “It kills me every day, knowing you are going through hell and I’m not. I want to be in trouble and you.”
“Going through hell” puts it mildly. Being a registered sex offender, Zach cannot even live in his own home anymore because he has a 14-year-old brother there. His parents had to buy him a home behind their family print shop and hire him as a worker because he cannot get employment anywhere else. Sex offender registries do not provide details of the offense; the public is left assuming the worst. The general public sees everyone on the registry from 15 to 75 as a sex offender—a status that keeps the offender from something as simple as patronizing a restaurant that serves alcohol or passing within a certain distance of a school or playground. One former Indiana judge told CNN that if these “Romeo and Juliet laws” were strictly enforced, we would have to lock up 30 to 40 percent of all our high school students.
The Devastating Nature of the Sex Offender Stigma
Zach is the other side of the victimization caused by online dating apps like Tinder, OKCupid, and Match.com. In this case, a lonely, underage girl wanted to meet and have anonymous sex with another teenager. She knew this would not happen unless she lied about her age. What could go wrong? Nothing but everything.
“On the night it happened, I had a gut feeling that I shouldn’t be doing this,” Zach responded to the girl’s letter. “If I would have trusted my conscience, none of this would have happened.”
At least 38 states have sex offender registries for teenagers. A portion of the 2006 Adam Walsh Protection Act Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”) requires juveniles register as sex offenders on state registries. States were threatened by the federal law to comply with SORNA by July 2011 or face a 10 percent loss of the federal Byrne Justice Assistance Act. Thus, relatively innocuous sex offenses like the one Zach Anderson committed, or even just “Sexting” among juveniles can lead to sex offender registration. Zach is now part of a growing underclass of sex offenders who will indeed spend a lifetime of hell trying to cope with the social stigma of being a “sex offender.”
In 2013, the CDC reported that 47 percent of teenagers had engaged in sexual intercourse, 41 percent of whom did not use a condom. Teenage sex is now woven into the fabric of our society. The U.S. Justice Department reports that 12 percent of all rapes and 19 percent of all other sex offenses are committed by minors—many of which were “Romeo and Juliet” affairs, or involved inappropriate touching, or minor sexual activity that occurred under extenuating circumstances.
If you find yourself under investigation by school and/or law enforcement authorities for some kind of inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor, do not take anything for granted. Law enforcement and prosecutors are increasingly treating these kinds of offenses a “major sex offenses” warranting serious prosecution. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney with a strong record of defending against unfounded sex offenses. Mitigation is a legitimate defense that is being more frequently embraced by juries. But it takes an attorney who understands not only the court system but has the ability to pick jurors receptive to mitigation. Our law firm is prepared to put up this aggressive defense in your behalf.