DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Two northwestern Minnesota teenagers from Becker County -- considered juveniles -- have recently been charged with felony crimes that not all teens or their parents even know about. It’s having sexual relations when there is too big of an age gap.
The Forum News Service does not always report on the specifics of juvenile cases, but local law enforcement officials say it is a problem they see regularly.
For so many, the whole world of teen dating can seem like a gray area of what is right, what is wrong and what is too young. But the eyes of law enforcement officials do not see those shades of gray quite as well; the law is black and white. And when those laws are broken - even unknowingly - it stops becoming a parental decision and starts becoming a legal matter.
What is the law?
The state has defined an appropriate age of consent, and under Minnesota statute, people cannot have any type of sexual contact with a child under the age of 16 if they are more than 24 months older than them.
“Sexual contact is also defined as breasts and inner thigh areas,” said Becker County Investigator Kathy Nguyen, who says the level of charges is determined by how far those teens go.
Charges can range from fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct all the way up to an automatic felony if it’s proven there was sexual penetration.
It could mean jail time, it could mean having to register as a sex offender for 10 years.
“And it doesn’t matter what the gender is; if it’s the female that is the older one, she’s the one in trouble,” said Nguyen.
That means, for example, that teens as close as a 15 and a 17 year old or a 14 and 16 year old, depending on their birthdates, could be in violation of the law if their relationship becomes sexual in nature.
“Just dating in and of itself isn’t illegal,” said Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander. “We have ninth graders who go to school with seniors, and they’re intermingling. We’re not trying to stop that - it’s when they take it one step further.”
So how do these instances make it from the private corners of teenagers’ lives to the desks of law enforcement officers?
“Sometimes from parents, but mostly mandated reporters,” said Nguyen. “School counselors, social service workers, medical staff - if they’re aware of it, they have to report it.”
And detectives have to investigate. Proof comes in the form of pregnancies, medical issues and digital communications that go public.
“Most of the time we question them and they admit it, but they think, ‘we’re both under 18, it’s consensual, how can we get in trouble for this?’” said Nguyen.
Often parents are under the same, misinformed impression.
“The parents (of the younger teen) will be OK with it and think, ‘ah, he’s a nice guy’, and we’re not saying he isn’t nice,” said Glander, “but it doesn’t matter - it’s their age and activity that’s the problem.”
Once the investigation is complete, the case is sent over to the county attorney’s office for review.
That’s where the decision to prosecute is made.
Assistant Becker County Attorney Kevin Miller says when cases like this come across his desk, his decision to prosecute is typically already determined by the statute.
“If there’s a crime broken there, you have to end up quite frequently charging it out,” said Miller, who does say every case is different, and therefore which punishments are sought can vary.
If the person being charged is an adult, they may be harsher. If they are 17 or younger, he says there is a little more leeway for the court and the prosecutor to try to resolve the matter without it being something that sticks on the teen’s record forever - something like having to register as a predatory offender.
That is one, long-lasting possibility that can come back to haunt a young person for years, including not being able to live on a college campus, getting certain jobs and public shame.
Miller says he typically tries to avoid that, though, unless there is reason to think otherwise.
“On several cases in the past, we’ve had an independent evaluator question the people involved and give an opinion as to whether or not they believe the person is a risk and should be required to register,” said Miller, who says the court does take into consideration whether or not each case is an isolated incident with one particular underage teen or if there is a history or pattern there.
One might think that tech-savvy teenagers would understand the gravity of sending nude or inappropriate photos of themselves to others, and yet investigators in Becker County say it happens all the time.
For this, the age applicable is anybody under the age of 18 - no matter the age difference.
A common scenario: a young teenage girl sends her boyfriend a nude photo of herself, they break up and he sends it to all of his friends, who then send it to their friends.
Emotional damage aside, there are a lot of illegal things happening there, starting with the teenage girl.
“She could possibly get charged with distributing it,” said Miller, who says the way the law is currently written, even though it is a picture of herself, it is still child pornography and she is still distributing it.
“And the boyfriend would not only be in possession of child pornography, but if he sends it out to his friends, he would then also be distributing it,” said Miller, who goes on to say that the friends who receive it could potentially also be charged with possession of child pornography if it’s found on their devices.
Local law enforcement officials know that for every one case of teens illegally “dating” that gets to them, there are exponentially more they won’t see.
“But we’re getting into the prom season, and we just want people to be aware because there are a lot of potential issues there,” said Glander, “You could have a 10th grader who isn’t 16 yet dating a senior who is 17 or 18. We just want to protect everybody involved.”
Glander and Nguyen say when teens and parents are investigated for these issues, they are typically shocked and don’t understand what the law is.
Other times, parents just need a little ammunition to maintain a strong stance as they put their foot down on saying “no” to their teens in what can be an emotional situation. “If parents know what the law is, at least they’ve got that leg to stand on,” said Nguyen. “They can say, ‘I’m your parent, I love you, I need to protect you, this is illegal, and it’s not going to happen.”