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October 2, 2008

A better example of sex-offense plea deal gender disparity?

I noted here earlier this week a report about a federal sex offense case in which prosecutors allowed a defendant to plead guilty in a way that enabled her to avoid being subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.  I speculated that one reason this plea deal was accepted might have been because the victim was male and the defendant was female, rather than vice-versa. 

In part because my gender-based speculation generated lots of interesting comments, here is another gender-bending story worthy of debate.  This story, as reported in the Orlando Sentinel and headlined "Teacher accused of having sex with 14-year-old student avoids jail," comes from state court:

A former middle school teacher accused of having sex with a 14-year-old student in her car pleaded no contest to a reduced charge today and was sentenced to five years probation. Jennifer Tarkenton, who has since gotten married and goes by Jennifer Nero, was arrested Nov. 30, shortly after she and the student were discovered in her Ford Focus on a deserted stretch of road near Lake Mary.

A neighbor had called authorities, saying a suspicious vehicle was parked on the road. When a Seminole County deputy arrived, the vehicle was rocking and the windows were fogged up, according to court records. The boy told deputies that he and his teacher had just had sex.  He was still wearing a condom, according to court records. Tarkenton also admitted that they had just had sex.

She was charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery.  Today, after plea negotiations, she pleaded no contest to one count of felony battery. That means she will not have a record as a sex offender.

Tarkenton was a special education teacher at Greenwood Lakes Middle School at the time. She resigned immediately. Today, as part of her plea, she agreed to give up her teaching certificate for life. She also agreed not to live within 500 feet of a school or park, to complete a sex offender treatment program and to stay away from anyone under the age of 18, except for her son.

The story goes on to say that the prosecutors agreed to the deal because of concerns about a threatened suppression motion.  But, again I wonder, would this kind of plea deal been as likely if the middle-school teacher was a male having consensual sex with a 14-year-old female student?

October 2, 2008 at 03:40 PM | Permalink


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Anyone have access to the suppression motion that was filed in this that purportedly prompted the plea agreement? Per the usual, the media's version of the facts (upon approaching a legally parked car, the officer observed it rocking back and forth and the windows fogged up), doesn't seem to support any suppression argument. Which if true, would undermine the prosecutor's stated reason for the plea.

Posted by: NewFedClerk | Oct 3, 2008 9:15:14 AM

I just read the article and it says the suppression motion was based on the premise that the arrest was unlawful because "it was a legally parked car."

Am I completely off the map in thinking that suppression motion was completely DOA? Who cares if it was a legally parked car? It was also a car about which a citizen had called in and described as a suspicious vehicle, thereby giving the police every right to go see what car the citizen was talking about. Then, when the officer approached, he observed that the car was rocking and the windows were steamed up. I am almost positive that having sex in a car parked on a public road is illegal wherever in Florida this happened, and it certainly seems reasonable for the officer to conclude that the steam and rocking were the result of sex, not some natural geothermic activity.

I mean, I am generally anti-government in the 4th Amendment context and in favor of a stronger exclusionary remedy. But to offer such a cupcake plea deal in the face of such a weak suppression motion reeks.

Posted by: A. Nony. Mous | Oct 3, 2008 9:26:25 AM

What shocked me was not so much the plea deal itself, but the terms. Philosophically, I give prosecutors wide discretion to use their resources as they see fit to best manage crime and punishment in their district. So the fact that he/she accepted a plea down from rape in and of itself doesn't get my back up, even if I might not have done the same. What shocked me was that he accepted a plea that did not require the person to register as a sex offender. If this was a guy being charged, there is simply no way that such a plea with those terms would have been accepted. It's a real disappointment to me that the judge allowed this particular term to go through.

What this case does is provide more fodder for a suspicion I have long held: that crime statistics regarding sex offenders are unreliable. I have read in various places that while most child abuse takes place by women, most child sexual abuse takes place by men. But one star in the constellation of statistics they use to support this claim is crime statistics. Yet the underlying presumption is that prosecutors are making charging decisions consistent with the actual fact pattern. But if prosecutors are unwilling to do so, and allow women to cop pleas to generic abuse instead of sexual abuse, it would seem that female sex offenders are being incorrectly categorized for statistical purposes. This is very troublesome to me, as it should be to anyone who thinks that criminal law and sentencing should have some empirical basis.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 3, 2008 1:02:48 PM

William Saletan in Slate put your concerns to rest a year ago, or so. Google: "Are female teachers who sleep with boys getting off?"

Posted by: Jesse | Oct 3, 2008 2:42:47 PM

Jesse. The article you refer to is not on point. It discusses criminal sentences, not criminal charges. The data in the article assumes, without addressing, that the criminal charge is an objective reflection of the underlying behavior. It is that assumption that I am questioning. When the author writes that women's sentences are based upon behavior that is "objectively less vile" he is not referring to the objective behavior in the arrest report. He is referring to the objective data in the legal case. If the arrest report discusses a "sexual assault" but gender bias causes the legal filing to refer to simple "battery" (which is what happened in this news article) then crime statistics built upon legal filings are biased because the underlying legal filings were biased.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 3, 2008 5:06:42 PM

It's not a real crime for a woman and a teenage boy to have consensual intercourse (by consensual, I ignore the legal fiction that a minor cannot consent). As long as no duress or force is involved, no crime has occurred. Not only that, but the only "victim" is the female if she gets in trouble and the law gets involved. Any teenage boy would want to have sex with his hot teacher, for example. To say the teenage boy is somehow a "victim" is the ultimate exercise in taking the "protecting the children" dogma to ignorant, unrealistic extremes with no basis in reality. When a teenage boy suddenly becomes the most popular kid in school, he is not a victim as a matter of law. Such is the case for those lucky teenage boys who have been fortunate enough to have had consensual ("hell yeah!" = consent) sex with their horny blond female teachers. The teachers should not be punished, they should be thanked by the boy's parents. The only "victims" are the boys in the class who were left out and not offered sex from the teacher... the fat, pimply red-haired boy who sits in the back of the classroom. He's the victim. Not the 15 year old stud who got 26 year old blond Miss Teacher wet between her legs. As a taxpayer I take extreme offense at one cent of my taxes being used to arrest, try, and punish Miss Teacher. She did the boy the biggest favor any adult will ever do in his life, and gave him a lifetime of self-confidence. Surely teenage boys who have sex with their hot female teachers have a leg up in life, and will all go on to be powerful leaders in whatever field they go into.

Posted by: Bruce | Oct 4, 2008 4:41:45 AM

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