Ohio’s Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to hold police officers’ sexual conduct with minors to higher standards that those applied to the general population based on their profession alone.
The divided 4-3 decision passed on Thursday overturned a two year sentence of former Waite Hill police officer Matthew Mole, who was convicted by the state in 2012 for having a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old boy.
The teen, identified as J.S. in court papers, hooked up with Mole, who was 35 at the time, through a dating app. He told Mole that he was 18 and a high school senior. The fact that Mole was a peace officer was not known to J.S. until after their encounter.
Mole faced separate charges under unlawful sexual conduct law, which prohibits people aged 18 or older from having sex with a minor between 13 and 15 and under the sexual battery stature, which prohibits sex with a minor by members of certain professions, if the age difference between them is more than two years.
The first charge required that the alleged offender knew the minor’s age or acted recklessly in that regard. In Mole’s case the charge was put before a jury, which deadlocked leading to a mistrial.
The second charge on the other hand requires the state only to prove that there was sex between the alleged offender and the minor. Mole was tried by the bench, found guilty of sexual battery, and convicted to two years in prison, which he has since served.
Mole appealed the conviction, arguing that the sexual battery statute was aimed at protecting minors from being taken advantage of by adults in a position of authority over them, like legal guardians, teachers or mental health providers. His relationship with J.C. was not occupation-based, Mole argued, but the wording of the stature makes it applicable to peace officers regardless and was discriminatory.
The Eighth District Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, but the state appealed the ruling only for the Supreme Court to side with the District Court of Appeals.
“We do not agree that a person’s status as a peace officer justifies the imposition of different sexual-conduct standards for peace officers in circumstances in which the officer’s status is irrelevant,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote.
“And the jury’s failure to convict him of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor makes clear that, but for his status as a peace officer, Mole would not be subject to criminal liability for the sexual conduct at issue in this case,” she added.
Dissenting Justice Sharon Kennedy, a former police officer, said prohibiting police officers from having sex with minors serves a legitimate state purpose.
“If a peace officer discovered after the fact that the person with whom he engaged in sexual conduct was a minor, he would have a strong incentive to do whatever is necessary to ensure that his employer never found out, even to the point of compromising his integrity. Moreover, there is the potential for blackmail, which could lead to corrupt behavior or worse,”Kennedy wrote.