When Intent Matters

Let’s imagine a scenario.  You’re a guy, a senior in high school.  You’ve just turned eighteen.  At a party, you meet a girl who seems perfect for the casual night you’re looking for—attractive, interesting, and interested in you.  She tells you she’s seventeen, and is in the grade below you.  You have no reason not to believe her—after all, she’s at a party with a bunch of other people your age, and she certainly looks seventeen, if not older.  She ends up coming home with you.

Now imagine that afterwards, you discover that this girl is actually fourteen.  In Tennessee (and in many other states) you have actually committed statutory rape, a strict liability crime.  That means that if this goes to court, it won’t matter how old you thought she was.  It won’t matter that you had no way of knowing she was fourteen, or that she lied to you, or that you are not the first boy she’s done this with.  It won’t matter that you’re both in high school, and it certainly won’t matter that it was completely consensual.  You will still face up to six years of jail time—and at least one—and you will have to register as a sex offender.

The problem with a strict liability approach to felony crimes, such as statutory rape, is that people who genuinely had no intentions of harm—and were possibly even fooled into their crime, such as the case of our unfortunate example character—find their lives turned upside down.   They spend years in jail, deprived of even basic freedoms and surrounded by legitimate criminals.  Even after their release, they must struggle with the stigma associated with a felony crime, preventing them from finding jobs or even places to live.  The effects on their lives are inescapable.

Some people argue for strict liability as the best way to hold the truly guilty accountable.  After all, it would be easy for a guilty man to claim ignorance.  However, in the words of William Blackstone, “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”  If I were the person in our earlier scenario, I would rather not be this kind of sacrifice, an innocent chosen to suffer so that the guilty do not escape punishment.  I would take little comfort in knowing that if I had actually been guilty and my defense had been a lie, I would have been justly punished.

Strict liability treats very different levels of intent as if they were the same, and for that reason I cannot support its application in the case of felony crimes.  Felony crimes require a level of investigation that cannot stop at whether or not the action in question occurred; intent should also be considered when determining guilt. The consequences for the accused are too great not to.

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One thought on “When Intent Matters

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. Statutory rape should not be punished on a strict liability basis. The life of the eighteen year-old in your hypothetical seems to be worth more to me than the meager amount of time that the court saves by prosecuting him with strict liability. If it should have been so obvious to him that his partner was underage, then the prosecution should be required to show as much.
    It’s worth noting, however, that the court does not recognize the act as “consensual” even if both persons involved expressed a desire to engage in it. The minor cannot, according to the law, give consent. I’m not sure where I stand on this, personally. I understand the legal narrative, but it seems to almost be a sort of fiction to say that sixteen year-old is incapable of understanding the act to the same extent as an eighteen year-old.
    I wonder how society would react to the suggestion that the offense be renamed to something other than statutory rape, since the connotations and imagery stirred by the word rape carries a lot of baggage that doesn’t quite fit the crime. When we think of rape, I think people tend to think of something more than “sex without legal consent.” Rape as “sex without consent” implies a certain violent malicious nature that is, obviously, completely absent from your hypothetical. And yet, according to the law, both are “sex without legal consent,” though one is punished differently, as it should be.

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