The Washington Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that student age doesn't matter in teacher-sex cases, even if the student is 18 and considered an adult by other state laws.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that student age doesn’t matter in teacher-sex cases, even if the student is 18 and considered an adult by other state laws.
The case involves Matthew Hirschfelder, a former choir teacher at Hoquiam High School, who had been charged with first-degree sexual misconduct with a minor in 2006. An 18-year-old choir member told police she had been involved in a sexual relationship with him.
Hirschfelder, who was 33 at the time, denies any relationship occurred. He asked a lower-court judge to dismiss the case because the girl was not a minor. The judge refused to dismiss the case and encouraged the Court of Appeals to clarify what state law said on the issue. The appeals court ruled in January 2009 that the statute was unconstitutionally vague.
A few months later, the Legislature clarified the law, saying all sex between school employees and full-time registered students 16 or older is illegal.
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The Supreme Court on a vote of 5-4 reversed the appeals court and said the state law was not unconstitutionally vague.
Hirschfelder’s attorney, Rob Morgan Hill of Olympia, was surprised by the ruling.
“I thought that the issues were so clear that it was logically impossible for them to decide as they did,” Morgan Hill said.
He was surprised by the way the court ruled on unconstitutional vagueness, since the legal standard says a law should be written so a person of common intelligence will understand it.
The Supreme Court’s decision implies that four supreme court judges and three appeals court justices have below common intelligence because they interpreted state law differently than the five justices in the majority, Morgan Hill said.
“Which is bizarre,” he added.
Morgan Hill said he expected his client will want to appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They have 90 days to bring that petition.
Megan M. Valentine, Grays Harbor County deputy prosecuting attorney, said she felt the Supreme Court took a common sense approach to the case and was clear in explaining the reasons for their decision.
“I’m pleased with the results,” Valentine added.
Hirschfelder argued that the former statute, entitled “sexual misconduct with a minor in the first degree” was not intended to criminalize sexual intercourse between school employees and registered students age 18 or older because of the statute’s use of the word “minor.”
He argued that the term “minor” is ambiguous.
In the decision, written by Justice Debra L. Stephens and signed by justices Barbara Madsen, Gerry Alexander, Mary Fairhurst and James Johnson, the justices argue that they must focus on the plain language of the statute, which prohibits sexual relations between school employees and registered students. They cite another statute that defines students as anyone enrolled in school and under 21.
“Reading ‘minor’ as Hirschfelder urges — to exclude those students 18 or older — renders the words ‘registered student’ in the statute meaningless,” the decision said.
The dissent, written by Chief Justice Charles W. Johnson and signed by justices Susan Owens, Richard B. Sanders and Tom Chambers, argues the majority did not properly interpret state law and used the wrong statutes to make its argument, while ignoring others that would have fit the case better.
“The majority’s conclusion is inconsistent with the statutory scheme, taken as a whole, and does not, ultimately make sense,” Johnson wrote in his dissent.
He called the majority’s explanations unpersuasive and imprecise.
The dissent also criticizes the majority for rewriting a “bright-line rule.”
“We should not use the statute to criminalize conduct between two consenting adults where the Legislature has expressly provided otherwise,” Johnson wrote.