Everything related to criminal justice – from the way laws are written to the manner in which police and prosecutors enforce them – has both intended and unintended consequences. In some cases, those consequences can be disastrous for individuals who, by most people’s judgments, have done nothing wrong.
The most shocking examples are often related to crimes like possession of child pornography. The public naturally has a strong aversion to this crime, and that puts pressure on lawmakers to write overly broad bills. It also puts pressure on prosecutors to pursue convictions, even in cases where it seems clear that there was no intent to commit a crime. The following case is an example.
High school principal faces serious charges related to school investigation
In Colorado, a 32-year-old high school principal faces up to 12 years in prison on four counts of sexual exploitation of a child. The principal came into possession of several explicit images of a minor as part of an investigation into student sexting through Snapchat. He was following district policy and investigating an anonymous tip he had received.
The details of this case are too numerous to discuss on this blog, but have been covered extensively by news outlets. To summarize, the principal ran a completely transparent investigation and communicated with law enforcement, the school district and even the parents of the girl identified as the victim.
Seemingly no one believes that the defendant had ill intent in collecting these images. The alleged victim and her parents have voiced support for the principal and asked that the charges be dropped. Unfortunately, Colorado’s child pornography laws do not consider intent. If someone who isn’t a law enforcement officer possesses such images, they can be (and likely will be) prosecuted.
Numerous criminal justice problems on display
This case highlights several systemic problems, some of which we have previously discussed on this blog. They include:
Overly broad laws: All laws, especially criminal laws, need to be very carefully written, preferably in consultation with experts. If a criminal law contains no room for prosecutorial or judicial discretion, it is a recipe for inappropriate charges. Many legal scholars also believe that criminal laws should nearly always contain an element of intent to commit a crime, known as “mens rea.”
Plea deals and the trial penalty: Prosecutors in this case have offered the principal a plea deal. He could plead guilty to a lesser charge of obstructing justice, which would allow him to avoid the threat of much more serious punishments like 12 years in prison, mandatory sex offender registration and potentially losing access to his children. Taking the plea deal is the safe and rational alternative, but only because dropping the charges was not under consideration. Pleading guilty to any crime is very difficult when neither you nor the alleged victim believe you did anything wrong.
Police in schools: Many schools in America have at least one “resource officer” to assist with security and student conduct that violates the law. However, the relationship between school administrators and resource officers can be very vague and opaque, even to administrators. This case in particular involved numerous unanswered questions about whose job it was to investigate the sexting report and how communications should have been handled.
Accused of a crime? You cannot afford to face charges alone.
If you’ve been charged with a crime – especially one as serious as possession of child pornography – the odds are stacked heavily against you. This case demonstrates that even if you didn’t intend to violate the law, prosecutors can still pursue a case against you. As such, you need an experienced and aggressive defense attorney in your corner as soon as possible.