Labeling

‘Sexually violent predator’ too frightening a description to be assigned without evidence

William Vollert has been labeled a “sexually violent predator.” It is worth noting, however, that had the girl he had sex with been just three months older the act that led to that label would have been perfectly legal.

That is not to say Vollert did nothing wrong. A 20-year-old – as he was at the time – should know better than to have sex with a 14-year-old. Period.

Branding him as a menace to public safety, however, does not fit the facts of the case. That is especially worrisome in that the label attached to Vollert came about not by way of a judge or a jury assessing his actions, but through what amounts to a guess as to what he might do in the future.

Society has every reason and every right to protect minors from the sexual advances of adults. At the same time, the law tries to take into account not only the facts of life, but the realities of adolescence, including young love.

Vollert says the girl consented to sex. And in the everyday meaning of that word, she probably did – at least there does not appear to be any allegation to the contrary. The law, however, recognizes that the very young are incapable of making a reasonable judgment about such an adult act and therefore cannot consent to sex no matter what they say or do.

The law also recognizes that one individual’s age is not the only factor. A significant age difference between the involved parties can result in a real disparity in personal power, influence and authority. That can make meaningful consent on the part of the younger person impossible.

To make allowance for all that Colorado lawmakers came up with a sort of sliding scale instead of a simple age of consent. State law says, in part, that an individual has committed sexual assault if “at the time of the commission of the act, the victim is less than 15 years of age and the actor is at least four years older than the victim ... or ... the victim is at least 15 years of age but less than 17 years of age and the actor is at least 10 years older than the victim.”

So, if the girl had been three months older or Vollert two years younger, having sex would have been legal. But she was not 15, he was not 18 and the law does not say “almost” or “about” in reference to either. The age limits may be arbitrary, but sex with children is unacceptable and laws must be specific. Prosecuting Vollert for what he did was right.

But to go further and label him a “sexually violent predator” is unwarranted and unjust. As a sheriff’s deputy familiar with the case told the Herald, “It wasn’t a violent crime.”

The label came from a psychological evaluation, which included written questions that Vollert, a poor reader, said he struggled with. Plus, how accurate such things are is unclear. An article in the New Yorker about sex crimes and the law (Jan. 14) said, “When relying on clinical interviews, mental-health professionals predict dangerous behavior at a rate not much better than chance.”

Still, with that we attach a label to a young man that will likely haunt him for life. We scare the wits out of nearby parents by making them think of truly heinous acts unlike anything Vollert ever did. And we do so on the basis of a guess.

Drunken driving kills people. But absent other factors, a driver with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit is charged with drunken driving – not with manslaughter. Vollert and his understandably frightened neighbors deserve the same respect for the facts.