In case you somehow missed it, Kaitlyn Hunt is a Florida high school student who finds herself in a sizable amount of hot water this month, as well as being at the center of a controversial national story. The senior class cheerleader was charged with felony level sex crimes after police investigated a report that she was involved in a sexual relationship with a 14 year old freshman. (Hunt is 18 years old.) The story becomes even more convoluted – and irresistible bait for the media – because the freshman is also female. The younger girl’s parents reportedly objected to what was going on between Hunt and their daughter, asked for the contact to end, and then called the police when Kaitlyn allegedly continued the relationship.

If convicted for “lewd and lascivious assault” and the other charges, Hunt could face more than a decade in jail and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. This has, predictably, resulted in a national furor on both sides of the case, with detractors claiming that the younger girl’s parents are homophobes who objected to their daughter having a girlfriend, (a charge they have since denied) and supporters declaring that the age gap defines Hunt as a sex offender and the law is protecting the younger girl. In an apparent attempt to calm the waters, prosecutors offered a plea deal where Hunt would plead guilty to somewhat lesser felony charges, do two years of house arrest followed by supervised parole, and not have the same level of permanent sex offender status. Hunt has declined the offer, and some of her supporters seem to feel that she may get off the hook based on Florida’s Romeo and Juliet laws.

This case brings to light some very old and extremely complicated issues. There is little disagreement on the fact that we need laws in place to protect children from becoming the prey of predatory pedophiles and monsters. But when we structure these laws, the door swings open to situations where minors who may be involved in inadvisable, but still consensual, high school relationships get swept up in laws intended for predatory adults. (Which side of this fence Kaitlyn falls on is probably the biggest debate here.) Thus the actions by a number of states which provide some form of relief for underage, sexually active teens under the so called Romeo and Juliet laws mentioned above. But Florida’s law in particular may not offer the escape hatch which some of Hunt’s supporters think it will. The state provides a good summary of the law which will probably come as a surprise to some observers.

Section 943.04354, F.S., provides a process allowing a motion or petition for removal of the requirement to register as a sexual offender or sexual predator for qualifying “Romeo and Juliet” offenders who meet specific criteria outlined in the statute. Most notably , the victim must be at least 14 years-old, the offender no more than 4 years older than the victim at the time of the offense, and the victim must have consented to the sexual conduct. Qualifying offenses for consideration of registration relief by the court fall under the following statutes:
s. 794.011, F.S. (sexual battery); s.800.04. F.S. (lewd or lascivious offenses committed upon or in the presence of persons less than 16 years of age); s. 827.071, F.S. (sexual performance by a child); or s. 847.0135(5), F.S. (certain computer transmissions prohibited).

Section 943.04354, F.S., only addresses an offender’s registry requirement and does not make any of the above qualifying offenses legal. The sexual conduct associated with these offenses is still a crime when the victim is 15 years of age or younger, even if both of the participants are minors and the act was consensual.

If you read that section carefully, you’ll note that the law provides no relief in the form of an instant “not guilty” finding. The laws still stand as described. This only involves whether or not the perpetrator will wind up on the sex offender registry. And even then, it only allows them to petition to be taken off the list. It’s not automatic.

All of these laws in the states where they have been passed seem to lead to a lot of confusion and protestations, but it seems like there’s a great need for them. As adults, we gain a different perspective on teenage sex (or love) – particularly when it comes to our own daughters. But I certainly remember a very different point of view when I was in that age group myself. There was no amount of sage advice from adults which was going to dim my emerging interest in girls. This resulted in at least two situations where problems arose, one when I attempted to date a Senior girl when I was a freshman and another when I did date a sophomore when I was a senior. The former resulted in my being shoved into a wall by the girl’s actual boyfriend (also a senior) and the later saw my father and the girl’s father nearly come to blows in our driveway. But I can assure you, in neither case was I only interested in meeting the girls for milk and cookies in their parents’ yard.

But is there really no difference between an adult cruising the playground in a windowless van looking for victims and two classmates who agree to date? And how do we balance that with the fact that 14 year olds really can’t give meaningful consent under the law for things which they are not mentally or emotionally developed enough to deal with? Florida’s laws actually seem to blunder in the opposite direction when they provide relief for slightly older children.

s. 794.05, F.S., provides an age-gap provision that allows a 16 or 17 year-old to legally consent to sexual conduct with a person 16-23 years of age. The fact that an offender may not have known the age of the victim or the victim portrayed themselves to be older, cannot be used as a defense to prosecution under s. 800.04, F.S., or ch. 794, F.S. However, as provided in s. 921.0026, F.S., these facts can be offered at sentencing as mitigation for the court’s consideration.

So we wind up with a situation where a senior who has turned 18 and has a boyfriend or girlfriend who is a freshman (and we can really leave gender and homosexuality out of it for this part of the discussion) can wind up in jail for a decade and on the sex offender registry for life, but a 23 year old can go cruising the parking lots and get a 16 year old “girlfriend” to go back to their hotel if they “consent.” It’s a pretty crazy system, and there doesn’t seem to be any easy fix to it.

UPDATE: (Jazz) Doug Mataconis weighs in with the lawyer’s perspective and can’t make much more sense of it than I can.