April 10, 2014

Technology Makes it Easier for Prosecutors to Make Their Cases

by The Law Office of Timothy L. Healy

For as long as there have been schools, there have probably always been at least a few teacher-student relationships that were inappropriate, if not illegal.appleonthedesk.jpg

However, the degree to which those relationships could thrive - and be noticed, or go unnoticed - has changed in recent years. Prosecutors now often have trails of digital evidence leading right back to the suspect, making these cases especially tough to defend. This was evidenced in two recent Pierce County cases involving educators arrested for sexual contact with students.

Tacoma sex crimes defense attorneys recognize that the instantaneous and deceivingly private nature of electronic communication played a large role in these cases, which were highlighted in a recent Sunday feature by The News-Tribune.

One of those cases involved a 24-year-old female teacher at Lincoln High School, accused of sexual misconduct with three of her male teen students. Specifically, she's accused of sending sexually suggestive text messages and photos of herself scantily-clad. She has also pleaded not guilty to three charges of third-degree child rape.

In another case, a 33-year-old Curtis High School teacher pleaded not guilty to sexual misconduct with one of his 17-year-old students. Records of cell phones and text messages indicate the two had been in a romantic relationship for months.

There is no indication that any of these relationships involved forcible rape. In fact, all contact appears to have been consensual, as the trail of text messages and Twitter exchanges and Facebook private messages indicate. But for teachers allegedly involved with students, it doesn't matter - even when the student is over the age of 18. So long as there is a student-teacher relationship, the law holds that the student is unable to legally consent.

Many school districts have policies that discourage or forbid private communication between students and teachers, and that's probably good policy. When students and teachers are able to easily interact after school hours and about matters unrelated to the subject of study, the lines are easily blurred.

Prior to smart phones and social media, access between teachers and students was limited. Today, there is 24-7 access, and that is where some say troubles arise. People have a tendency to say things in digital form that they might never say face-to-face. Boundaries can more easily become skewed.

It can be particularly problematic for younger teachers, who have grown up with social media and digital communications, and may see nothing wrong with these communications.

In the case of the Curtis High School teacher, the district attorney's office reportedly uncovered some 1,972 minutes of cell phone conversations between the teacher and the girl between late November and mid-January. There were also some 2,500 text messages exchanged between the two from mid-December to mid-February. He has since resigned and is facing five counts of sexual misconduct with a minor.

That's not to say that texting or messaging in itself is a crime. There are even some cases in which that digital trail can prove that nothing untoward occurred, even if the student had a crush or has made a serious allegation.

But generally, maintaining a professional distance is advisable.

Teachers who have been accused of misconduct face a threat not only to their career, but to their freedom. It's important not delay an appointment with an experienced defense lawyer.

If you have been arrested for a sex crime in Tacoma, contact Timothy L. Healy at 888-312-3093 - a 24-hour hotline.

Additional Resources:
Crossing the line online: When teacher-student exchanges become improper, March 23, 2014, By Debbie Cafazzo, The News-Tribune

More Blog Entries:
U.S. v. Breton - Be Wary to Whom You Speak of Pending Charges, Jan. 20, 2014, Tacoma Sex Offender Lawyer Blog