Panel votes to close loophole in sexual exploitation law

Posted March 01, 2012, at 7:32 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – Soliciting sex with a child, however it is done, would be a crime under a measure that received the unanimous support of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Thursday.

“In today’s world there are a lot of different ways to do solicitation,” said Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Livermore Falls, co-chairman of the committee. “We need to try and look into the future and cover as much as we can.”

The original legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, was the result of an incident in Corinna last summer and was narrowly drafted. Rebekah Troyer was shocked to find it was not a crime for her neighbor to ask her 14-year-old daughter to have sex with him.

“Our 14-year-old daughter was explicitly propositioned by our 30-something-year-old neighbor,” she wrote in an email to Hobbins. “We called the police and we were informed there was nothing illegal about what he did, even after the trooper spoke to him and he confessed.”

Hobbins, an attorney, was surprised to find that Troyer was right and that the Attorney General’s office said there was a loophole in the law covering sexual exploitation of a minor. He introduced the legislation last fall that would make it a crime to verbally solicit sex with a child, but the panel has amended that to cover solicitation by any means.

“We were told by CLAC [the Criminal Law Advisory Commission] that we should not only close that loophole, but change the law to cover any solicitation in any form,” said Rep. Ann Haskell, D-Portland, the lead Democrat on the panel. “That’s what the amendment does.”

John Pelletier, chairman of CLAC, said it would be better to address the criminal behavior in the law and not the means of committing the behavior. He said, for example, it’s not clear if sending an email from a phone is a crime under the current computer solicitation statute.

“If you focus on the conduct and not how it was done, it becomes a matter of was the conduct done and can the state prove it,” he said. “It really is an amendment to the existing computer statute.”

Haskell said the committee during its discussion was concerned that other forms of solicitation of a minor might not be covered by existing laws. She said lawmakers are always trying to keep up with changes in technology.

“It’s sort of like the bath salts issue,” Mason said. “No one had heard of it two years ago and then we have this new, dangerous chemical we had to deal with.”

Haskell said she liked the approach suggested by CLAC instead of trying to list all of the methods by which an adult could solicit a minor.

“The concept here is that you should not be able to aggressively solicit a child,” she said.

“I find that it is much more appropriate to say by whatever means, whether it is verbal, whether it is on your cellphone or iPad or whatever new piece of electronic equipment that is going to come down the line.”

Haskell said the committee goal was not to expand the crime, but expand the ways the crime can be done so that methods of solicitation are not left out. Sexual exploitation of a minor is a Class B crime which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. If the child is under 12, the penalty increases to a Class A offense with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

“I think we took the right approach by not trying to define all of the various ways people can communicate,” Mason said. “You always run the risk of leaving something out, like Facebook or even something simple like just passing a note.”

The measure now goes to the full Legislature for consideration and could have its first votes next week, as lawmakers speed up the pace of the session.

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