Ruling Could Reopen Many Cases
In a decision that could reopen hundreds of criminal cases, the California Supreme Court on Monday struck down a state law that forced adults who had voluntary oral sex with older teenagers to register for life as sex offenders.
In a 6-1 decision, the court said the law violated equal protection guarantees because offenders who had oral sex must register but those who had sexual intercourse are not required to register.
The case was brought by a 22-year-old man who met a 16-year-old girl in an Internet chat room and eventually received oral sex from her.
He complained that he could have escaped lifetime registration if he and his victim had engaged in intercourse instead.
Monday’s ruling gives judges the same discretion to decide whether to require sex-offender registration in cases of oral sex with older minors as in cases of intercourse. They also can permit such offenders to negotiate plea bargains that exclude registration.
The court said it could find no rational reason why the Legislature would have subjected offenders to lifetime surveillance for oral sex but not intercourse.
“It is apparent the Legislature is not engaged in a process of fine-tuning its sex offender registration statutes in a way that will eventually eliminate the distinction between voluntary oral copulation with minors 16 to 17 years of age and voluntary sexual intercourse with such minors,” Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for the court.
No other state makes such a distinction in its laws, Kennard said. In fact, 38 states set the age of consent at 16 or younger. California’s age of consent is 18.
Justice Marvin R. Baxter dissented, arguing that the Legislature had good reason to distinguish oral sex from sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse can result in the birth of a child, and forcing a parent to register for life could have “the unfortunate effect of stigmatizing a child,” Baxter said.
“The Legislature chose to leave the imposition of sex offender registration to judicial discretion in intercourse cases, evidently in recognition of the negative effects of lifetime registration when voluntary intercourse between individuals in an ongoing relationship results in the birth of a child,” Baxter wrote.
Baxter predicted that the ruling would result in a slew of legal challenges by convicted offenders who could argue that their sentences were out of proportion to sentences for similar crimes.
The case was brought by Vincent Peter Hofsheier, who arranged to meet the 16-year-old and her friend at a Santa Cruz County beach, Baxter said. Hofsheier gave the girls rum and orange juice. The victim’s friend became drunk and sick.
Before taking the girls home, Hofsheier told the teenager, “You owe me something,” Baxter related. The girl then orally copulated him.
Deputy Atty. Gen. John H. Deist said offenders who have been convicted of having oral sex with older minors would probably return to court to ask that the registration requirement be rescinded. He said he did not know the number of offenders who have registered for that offense.
“I suspect more than dozens,” he said. Hundreds “would be closer.”
Deist said the Legislature was aware of the disparity but declined to change the registration requirement through several revisions of the sex offender laws.
He complained that the ruling would invite other offenders to bring legal challenges in cases where laws establish different penalties for similar crimes.
Attorney Paul Couenhoven, who represented Hofsheier in the case, could not be reached for comment.