Elkhart teen Zach Anderson’s sex offender status changes his daily life, raises broader questions about registry
Zach Anderson can’t be near a computer anymore. He can’t own or use a smartphone, and his family had to use a screwdriver to knock the camera off his new flip phone.
The Elkhart 19-year-old can’t use the Internet for five years, but his legally required web presence on the sex offender registry will affect the rest of his life.
Anderson must register as a sex offender for the next 25 years after being convicted of criminal sexual conduct with a minor in Michigan — a misdemeanor offense that will be public record at least as long as he has to register.
In December, Anderson had sex with a 14-year-old girl who told him she was 17 and whom he met through a dating app. Both teens say the encounter was consensual. A judge in Berrien County, Mich., sentenced Anderson to 90 days in prison, five years on probation and 25 years on the sex offender registry.
Anderson served 90 days in Berrien County Jail and was released Thursday, July 9. By the following Saturday, he was a registered sex offender in Indiana.
Indiana’s sex offender registry has three categories — offender against children, sexually violent predator and sex offender. But to the general public, that distinction easily can be lost. A sex offender is a sex offender, no matter the offense.
“If you’re on the registry, you’re clearly oozing toxic slime,” said Brenda Jones, executive director of advocacy group Reform Sex Offender Laws.
Michigan, unlike Indiana, doesn’t allow the defense that an offender didn’t know the victim was underage.
That’s one reason Anderson was convicted of Michigan’s equivalent to misdemeanor sexual misconduct with a minor, and one reason he’s registered in the same category as people convicted of child molesting and rape.
Jones argues there shouldn’t be a public sex offender registry at all.
The public sees everyone on the registry as dangerous and repulsive, she said. People won’t distinguish between an offender like Anderson and someone who intentionally had sex with a 14-year-old.
“Twenty years from now he’s going to look like an old geezer, but it’ll still say sexual relations with a 14-year-old, and it’ll look a whole lot creepier than it does right now,” Jones said.
In Indiana, sexually violent predators and offenders against children have residence restrictions even after they complete probation, said Detective Jim Smith of the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department. Those offenders can’t live near a school or park as long as they’re on the registry.
Anderson, who doesn’t fall in either category, can live where he wants once his probation ends.
But that offense will come up in Michigan background checks if he applies for a job. Indiana and Illinois will also honor the Michigan sentence and require him to register as a sex offender anywhere he lives, works or attends school until 2040.
His case poses a difficult question about the sex offender registry, which is meant to warn people about dangerous offenders in their area. Does the system need to be changed, or is the sentence for an offender like Zach Anderson necessary so habitual sexual predators don’t slip through the cracks?
The terms of Anderson’s probation, along with restricting Internet access and where he lives, say he can’t talk to anyone younger than 18 except immediate family. This is meant to block access to potential victims. Probation is a safety measure to prevent more sexual violence, just like the public sex offender registry.
A private registry like the one Jones wants, which would be available only to police officers, would negate the registry’s purpose as a public warning system, Smith said.
“One of the primary purposes is to keep people informed about habitual sexual predators that might be in their community, with their family and children,” said Smith, who is in charge of the Elkhart County registry.
But the registry might be misleading because it shows only sexual predators who have been caught.
Local police provide information about convicted sex offenders for the registry website, which is run by the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association and governed by state law. But since many child abuse cases don’t make it to prosecution, the registry doesn’t cover people who were accused of sex abuse but not convicted, said Candy Yoder, president of Child and Parent Services.
Police, school and medical authorities are more likely to observe or hear reports of child victimization now than they were 20 years ago, according to a 2012 Department of Justice study. But most incidents in which a person 17 or younger was raped or sexually harassed won’t be disclosed to authorities.
The DOJ estimates that in 2012 authorities heard about or observed 69 percent of incidents in which a child was sexually abused by an adult he or she knew, but only 14 percent of rapes, 15.2 percent of dating violence incidents and 42.4 percent of abuse by peers.
“Only a fraction of people who sexually harm children are prosecuted and therefore end up on the sex offender registry,” Yoder said. “It can be the case that it gives people a false sense of security, in that if someone’s name isn’t on the registry they feel safe about them.”
The registry shouldn’t be the only source people rely on to keep children safe, Yoder said. Parents need to know warning signs and talk to their children about sex abuse.
“When there is a scenario of two teenagers or teenagers who think it’s consensual, it’s not the same as a young child in a relationship with someone who is supposed to be taking care of them,” she said.
The registry has a tip sheet for parents on talking to children about predators, accessible through the “Safety Tips” tab at the top of the website.
Zach’s father, Les Anderson, doesn’t want to get rid of the sex offender registry, but he believes the Michigan court’s sentence didn’t take the specifics of his son’s case into account.
“You can’t make cookie cutter laws,” he said. “He meant no harm to this girl whatsoever.”
Family members are doing what they can to support their son and brother, but they’re limited by the terms of Zach’s probation.
He can’t live in the same house as his two brothers because they’re younger than 18. He can’t spend time with them without their parents present. Because of these rules, Zach’s parents had to buy him a house so he could move the same day he was released from jail.
“He needs us now more than any other time in his life, and yet the state says you can’t have him,” Anderson said.
Zach’s brothers are the only people younger than 18 he can have contact with, Anderson said. He said he’ll be the one mowing Zach’s backyard so his son won’t be too close to neighborhood kids playing nearby.
“Let’s say there’s a little kid walking on the road here, they got a ball, they kick it in his yard,” Anderson said. “He’s out there, he has to turn and walk away. It’s those kind of things that are going to affect his everyday life.”
The 19-year-old was planning to study computers and cybersecurity at Ivy Tech but is banned from studying computer science, according to previous Truth reporting.
When he was released from jail, police confiscated a laptop and other electronics Zach owned before he was incarcerated. Anderson thinks that’s when the truth about his new life hit his son.
“To watch all the possessions you previously had being stripped away and taken by law enforcement, that was really hard,” Anderson said. “That was emotional.”
If convicted in Indiana, Zach Anderson would have been on the sex offender registry for only 10 years after starting probation. But the same section of Indiana law says police have to honor the sentence from the state where a sex offender was convicted.
“If you don’t, you’ll have people going from state to state looking for easier restrictions,” Smith said.
Anderson’s family had hoped he would qualify for Holmes Youthful Training Act status, which comes from a Michigan law that lets some first-time offenders ages 17 to 21 remove convictions from their records. The plea agreement in his first trial included a condition that the prosecutor wouldn’t argue for or against Anderson’s eligibility for HYTA status.
But during sentencing, the prosecutor brought up two similar cases where HYTA status was denied and suggested Anderson should be treated the same way.
Anderson’s lawyer has entered a motion in Berrien County Court to withdraw his guilty plea because of the prosecutor’s statement during sentencing. If that motion is granted, Anderson could be re-sentenced or even begin a new trial.
If HYTA status is granted — the first judge denied it — Anderson won’t have to register after his probation is served, and the conviction won’t come up in a background check.
A pending Michigan Supreme Court case could allow Anderson’s defense that he did not know the alleged victim was underage, according to previous Elkhart Truth reporting.
Anderson’s next court date is Aug. 5.
“We just want to get this behind us and get back to life,” Les Anderson said. “Until we, hopefully, get a reversal, that won’t happen. We’ll take it as high as we have to go.” ..Source.. by Tori Fater