Zachery Anderson is from a small town in Indiana. He met a girl from Michigan on an online dating app a year ago. Anderson drove to the small town in Michigan where the girl lives, met up with the girl, and the pair wound up having sex. The age of consent in Michigan is 16. Anderson was 19 at the time, the girl told him she was 17. She was actually 14.
The case came to the attention of the police after the girl’s mother contacted them, concerned about her whereabouts. They were at her home when the girl returned, according to The South Bend Tribune. A few weeks later, the paper said, the police visited Mr. Anderson, who cooperated and, in February, turned himself in. He was arrested and charged and, after pleading guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and probation.
As an Indiana resident, Mr. Anderson will most likely be listed on a sex offender registry for life, a sanction that requires him to be in regular contact with the authorities, to allow searches of his home every 90 days and to live far from schools, parks and other public places. His probation will also require him to stay off the Internet, though he needs it to study computer science.
Some advocates and legal authorities are holding up Mr. Anderson’s case as the latest example of the overreach of sex offender registries, which gained favor in the 1990s as a tool for monitoring pedophiles and other people who committed sexual crimes. In the decades since, the registries have grown in number and scope; the nearly 800,000 people on registries in the United States go beyond adults who have sexually assaulted other adults or minors. Also listed are people found guilty of lesser offenses that run the gamut from urinating publicly to swapping lewd texts.
Once Anderson is on the sex-offender registry, his life is effectively over. He won't be able to get a job, he can't go back to school, he can't get an apartment, he can't live with his parents (their home is too close to a school), he can't even have an iPhone.
Sex-offender registries were created to protect the public by tracking the whereabouts of sex offenders—generally understood to mean rapists and pedophiles who had offended against children—and alerting the other members of the communities where they lived of their presence. A teenager who had what he believed to consensual sex with another teenager is not a pedophile or a sexual predator in the sex-offender-registry sense of either of those terms. But teenagers like Anderson routinely wind up on sex-offender registries anyway. Last year, Slate reported on the ever-expanding list of things that can land a person on a sex-offender registry:
In at least 29 states—from Alabama to Wisconsin—consensual sex between teenagers is a crime that can lead to sex offender status. “No group is out there saying that they want Romeo and Juliet to be on the registry,” Brenda Jones, executive director of Reform Sex Offender Laws, a volunteer advocacy group, told me. “But lawmakers aren’t paying attention, and we as constituents are not aware.” As you can see in the maps below, consensual sex between teenagers is just one of several crimes far removed from violent felonies that can land one on a sex offender registry. Kansas and at least five other states require registration for some prostitution-related offences, such as solicitation or running a brothel. In Michigan and at least 11 other states, urinating in public is.
I'm against adults sleeping with 14-year-olds—and Anderson was an adult when he slept with the girl he met in Michigan—but the men who engineered Anderson's sentence and his inclusion on Indiana's sex-offender registry don't seem at all concerned with protecting teenagers under the age of 16 from teenagers over the age of 16. It wasn't what Anderson did with that Michigan girl that bothered them. It was how Anderson met that Michigan girl in the first place:
Mr. Anderson’s parents are fighting back on behalf of their son, saying that while they believe he made a mistake, his punishment is extreme. They have been joined by the girl, who is now 15, and her mother, who have also defended Mr. Anderson, appearing in a Federal District Court in Michigan this spring to ask a judge for leniency.
“I don’t want him to be a sex offender, because he really is not,” the mother said, according to court transcripts. Her daughter told the judge that she felt “nothing should happen to Zach,” adding, “If you feel like something should, I feel like the lowest thing possible.” The judge, Dennis M. Wiley of Berrien County District Court in Michigan, was apparently not swayed by their testimony. After Mr. Anderson pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree, the judge declined to grant him a special status intended for young offenders. The status, under the state’s Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, would have spared him inclusion on the sex offender registry and erased the conviction from his record if he did not violate probation.
During a sentencing hearing in April, Judge Wiley criticized online dating in general and berated Mr. Anderson for using the Internet to meet women. “You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women, to meet and have sex with,” he said. “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.”
Judge Wiley disapproves of hookup culture—dating apps, casual sex—and so to demonstrate his moral disapproval, Wiley destroyed Anderson's life. He had sex with someone he met on a dating app: That's Anderson's real offense, according to the judge who sentenced him, not having sex with a girl who admits to telling him she was 17 when she was actually 14. The prosector felt the same way:
The prosecutor, Jerry Vigansky, did not oppose a Holmes Act sentence, but noted that it had not been applied to two similar cases in recent months. For some reason, Mr. Vigansky told the judge in court, this generation seems to think it is “O.K. to go online to find somebody and then to quickly hook up for sexual gratification."
"That’s not a good message to send into the community,” he said.
The judge and the prosecutor destroyed Zach Anderson's life to send a message to the community. And what was that message? It wasn't "Don't fuck 14-year-old girls." It was this: "Don't have NSA sex with people you meet online." Zachery Anderson is in jail right now, and he'll be on Indiana's sex-offender registry for the rest of his life once he gets out of jail, because two old men in Indiana are scandalized by what you were doing on Tinder this weekend.
I signed, you should sign.