Sexual Abuse Charges

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Sexual abuse is a general term used to describe criminal offenses that are sexual in nature. Some states use the term sexual abuse to describe different types of sexual assaults and indecent exposures involving child victims. However, depending on a state’s definitions, the term sexual abuse could also include adult victims. Because the charge of sexual abuse encompasses such a broad range of charges, it also carries a wide range of penalties and consequences.

Types of Sexual Abuse

When most people hear the term sexual abuse, they think of the child molestation. As mentioned however, sexual abuse is a category of offenses that includes several types of offenses. Even though the labels for these sub-offenses will vary by state, the labels will reflect a graduated classification of sex crimes depending on the severity of the contact. The highest level usually involves a sexual assault (actual penetration of a sexual organ) combined with some other aggravating circumstance. Aggravating circumstances can include the use of a weapon, a threat to harm the victim, or a very young victim. For example, in Texas and Florida, sexual assault charges can be aggravated by the repeated commission of a sexual offense against a child victim over an extended period of time. Texas calls this offense, “Continuous Sexual Abuse” and is designed to punish more severely a defendant who repeatedly victimizes a child.

The next lower level is sexual assault. This is similar to the higher charge, minus the aggravating factor. After sexual assault, the lowest level of sexual abuse charges are the indecency charges. This is where a defendant exposes their sexual organ to a child (or vice versa) or touches a child with intent to arouse their own sexual gratifications. Indecency is a lesser charge because it does not involve a completed sexual assault. Regardless of which level of sexual abuse is charged, some common elements required for each charge include (1) an intentional sexual act and (2) lack of effective consent by the victim. These elements also form the basis for most of the defense theories and approaches to defending the crimes.

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Defenses to Sexual Abuse Charges

The number of defenses to a sexual abuse charge have gradually decreased over the last several years. Promiscuity used to be a fairly standard defense to sexual abuse. Essentially, every prior sexual encounter by a victim (adult, teenage, or child) was admissible to show that the victim was sexually active and thereby must have consented to act that was charged. Because victims were essentially “put on trial”, instead of the defendant, many states enacted “rape shield” laws which strictly limit the use of promiscuity as a defense. Even though they are limited, some other defenses are still viable. 

If the victim is an adult, then consent is usually the most effective defense if there were no threats or use of force. Consent is not usually a viable defense when the victim is a young child because minors are incapable of giving effective consent. Most states have laws which do not recognize the consent of a child as a defense. As a result, the defensive focus in most child cases is not consent, but rather the nature of the touching or act which lead to the sexual abuse charge. With this defensive theory, a defendant does not deny that he/she touched the child, but argues that he did not do so for a sexual purpose. An example of a non-sexual purpose could be to check some part of the child’s body for a medical purpose. 

Another defense for child sexual abuse charges is to demonstrate or prove that the child was coached into fabricating the allegations. This can be done by having an expert review any interviews with the child victim to look for signs of coaching or prompting by an adult to get a child to complain of the sexual abuse. Even though not a technical legal term, the argument is basically that someone convinced the child abuse occurred which did not actually occur.

The rule which prohibits a minor from consenting to a sexual act has lead to some extreme consequences for teenagers. In Texas for example, a seventeen year old senior in high school could technically be charged with continuous sexual abuse of his sixteen year old girlfriend—even though she consented to every sexual encounter. The minimum punishment for continuous sexual abuse is twenty-five years in prison. To prevent a teenager from facing such a stiff sentence, Texas, like many other states, passed what are called “Romeo and Juliette” statutes to address the teen-sex “rape” cases. If a defendant is within five years of the age of the victim and the encounter was consensual, then the defendant would have a statutory defense to the sexual abuse charge. This is usually the only time that consent is a defense in a child sexual abuse case.

Punishment and Sentences in Sex Abuse Cases

Instead of trying to prove a defensive theory, which can be very difficult in some cases, many defendants instead focus on ways to mitigate, or decrease, the punishment they will receive. Overall, the sentence for a sexual abuse charge can range from two years in jail up to a life sentence. The higher the level of sexual abuse, the higher the level of punishment. Continuous sexual abuse, one of the most serious and egregious sexual abuse offenses in some states has a range of punishment of twenty-five to ninety-nine years in prison. Aggravated sexual assault has a slightly wider range of five to ninety-nine years in prison. Mere exposure of a sexual organ to a child carries a much lower punishment range of two to ten years in prison. Many states do not assess such extreme ranges of punishment for sexual abuse charges, but they will follow the same type of pattern—the more ugly the offense, the higher the punishment range.

The best defensive strategy often is not to deny that sexual abuse occurred, but rather to disprove the aggravating circumstances which draw the higher range of punishment. For example, if a defendant can show that a weapon was not used and a victim did not see a weapon, then an aggravated charge of sexual abuse can be reduced to a regular sexual abuse charge—which carries a much lower punishment range. 

Probation is sometimes a sentencing option for a sexual abuse charge, but it usually accompanied by a stricter set of conditions than an ordinary criminal probation. The judge can impose any set of conditions related to the protection of the community or the rehabilitation of a defendant. Some terms of probation would include prohibiting a defendant from going within 500 feet of a school and requiring a defendant to complete sex offender counseling. A major condition is usually that the defendant is to have no contact with the alleged victim. 

Registration as a Sex Offender and Other Consequences

Even though the most immediate focus of any sexual abuse charge is usually whether or not a defendant is going to have to serve a jail sentence, the most significant, long-term impact is the requirement that a defendant register as a sex offender with a local police agency. Every state has a set of sex offender registration requirements, but the length of registration can range from ten years to life. Even defendants that were placed on probation are required to register. Once a defendant registers, their name, address, and photograph are published on online registration databases. Because these databases are so easily accessible, they can significantly impact a defendant’s future employment and housing options.  In fact, many apartment complexes will not rent a facility to someone who has been convicted of sexual abuse, regardless of the date of the conviction.

Next to murder, sexual abuse charges are generally treated as some of the most severe criminal offenses in every state. Even though several states have tried to impose the death penalty in sexual abuse cases, the Supreme Court, for now, has limited states to lengthy prison sentences for sexual abuse convictions. The nature of the charges and defenses are extremely broad. As such, anyone charged with sexual abuse should visit with a criminal defense attorney to review all possible defenses and collateral consequences before making a final decision on their case.

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