Reason magazine has a strange story out of Michigan which should have us taking a fresh look at how we handle shifting standards for sexual assault laws, age of consent and related issues. But in truth, the age of consent issue in this case is somewhat overshadowed by what is potentially a case of fraud. A 19 year old man was browsing an app where you can apparently meet up with other young people for sexual liaisons and wound up traveling a across state lines to meet a 17 year old girl who he engaged in sexual relations with. But it turned out that she wasn’t who she claimed and the tale goes downhill from there.

But it turned out the girl was really 14. She’d lied to Anderson and also in her profile. Now Zach 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 thinking treating him this way is necessary to keep kids safe? Anderson and his family certainly don’t.

Neither does his supposed underage victim. The girl readily admitted that she lied about her age, and in this WSBT-TV interview her mother admitted that Anderson “didn’t do anything my daughter didn’t do.” Everyone agrees the encounter was completely consensual. The only reason the police became involved at all is because the girl suffers from epilepsy, and when she didn’t come home as quickly as expected her mom worried and called the cops for help.

In this excellent South Bend Tribune article, the mom told a reporter that she didn’t just ask the judge for leniency, “we asked him to drop the case.”

As I said, there are a couple of disturbing elements to this case. Another was the ad hoc commentary tossed in by the judge, Dennis Wiley at trial.

Vigansky said there had been “a little rash” of encounters in Berrien County of late like the one between Zach Anderson and the 14-year-old girl. There had been two of them, anyway. He took a dim view, sarcastically alluding to “this great website called Hot or Not.”

“You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women, to meet and have sex with,” scolded Wiley. “That seems to be part of our culture now. Meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this.”

I always have a hard time wrestling with these cases. If the girl had truly been 17 and they were in a state where the age of consent was 18 we’d have had another Romeo and Juliet case on our hands. Those can be tough, but it’s much easier to dismiss the charges – at least as observers – and call it a miscarriage of justice. This case, as I said, is less clear. The girl was 14 years old and Anderson is obviously an adult, if a young one. Statutory rape was committed by the letter of the law. And on the side of the prosecution, it remains true that a 14 year old girl can not legally give meaningful consent under the law.

Unfortunately, the circumstances leading up to their encounter are rather hard to ignore. The girl was on a site clearly intended for adults and had fraudulently filled out a profile stating that she was of an age which above the age of consent in Michigan. (It’s sixteen there.) Anderson was in Indiana where the consent age is also 16. The rape took place at a playground in Michigan. Anderson failed to ask her age when he picked her up and she failed to volunteer the information. But, again, how much responsibility can we place on a minor to provide such details when engaging in extremely poor judgement? But she did tell Anderson that she was of age, either directly or indirectly, through the app.

We could sit here and have a discussion about how foolish and risky this behavior was on both their parts and I wouldn’t argue with you if you were making that point. But the law is what it is, as the saying goes. What is the young man’s responsibility? Should he have asked for an ID before proceeding? (I’ve not seen a picture of the victim so I have no idea how “old” she may have looked, but that’s not really the point here.) What if she had provided a fake ID to him? Is there a point where the perpetrator’s responsibility ends in the case of statutory rape, assuming he’s made a good faith effort to determine the victim’s age and the victim admits to having taken steps to deceive the perpetrator about their age?

With the girl being 14, I don’t see how the courts simply walk away from that one. But 25 years on the sex offender registry still sounds awfully harsh given the extenuating circumstances. Would love to have some of the lawyers here weigh in on this one, not just as to the letter of the law, but if it requires adjustment. And if so, how?