The Tragic Case of the Sexting Teen Romeo

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This article first appeared on Reason.com.

Austin Yabandith just turned 18. But he's not allowed to see his friends, stay out past 9 p.m., use a computer or even attend school.

The Superior, Wisconsin, teen was charged with sexual exploitation for exchanging explicit pictures with his underage girlfriend last summer. As conditions of his plea agreement in December, he will avoid prison time and the sex offender registry.

But life has still been difficult for Austin. According to the conditions of his probation, which are listed on a document that was provided to him by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, ordinary teen activities are almost entirely off the table.

The document dictating those terms is "Standard Sex Offender Rules of Supervision"—even though Austin was not convicted of a felony and does not need to register as a sex offender.

If that sounds unfair, consider this: Austin initially discovered that he also wouldn't be able to finish his senior year and graduate from high school. Thankfully, this problem has been resolved.

 

The additional trouble stemmed from the fact that Austin had transferred schools—he was recently attending high school over state lines, in Minnesota. The sex offender registry works differently in every state, and even though Wisconsin did not convict Austin of a felony, the misdemeanor charge is enough to get him labeled a sex offender in Minnesota (but not Wisconsin).

Readers will recall that Austin had been arrested last July by the school resource officer (essentially a cop stationed at his school full-time) at his previous school, Superior High in Wisconsin, after it was discovered that the teen had sent and received sexts from his girlfriend, Kim (not her real name).

01_31_Romeo_Juliet_01 "Romeo and Juliet with Friar Laurence," a watercolor drawing by Henry William Bunbury (1792-96). Public domain {{PD-old-100}}

Austin and Kim dated for more than a year, were engaged in a consensual sexual relationship and had the blessing of Kim's parents—who even supplied the couple with birth control.

At the time, Kim was 15 years old, and Austin was 17.

Unbeknownst to Austin, Kim had sent additional nude pictures of herself to other boys at the school. School officials eventually learned that students were sexting one another, and the school resource officer, Tom Johnson, leapt into action.

He interviewed several of the boys and confiscated their phones. In the course of his investigation, he spoke with Austin as well. Officer Johnson asked if he could see Austin's phone—and Austin, to his eternal regret, agreed.

The other boys—the ones who had shared Kim's pictures and engaged in actual wrongdoing—were only 16 years old, which meant they weren't worth prosecuting. But Austin was 17, and 17-year-olds can be charged as adults, according to Wisconsin law.

He was charged with possession of child pornography, sexual assault of a child and sexual exploitation. In the eyes of the law, Austin's consensual relationship with his high school sweetheart was no different than a 50-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old.

Austin faced a possible (though unlikely) sentence of 40 years in prison.

That's the bad news. Now for the better news.

Thanks in part to the public attention generated by Reason's prior reporting on the case, Austin's mother was able to raise enough money to hire a criminal defense attorney. That lawyer, Robin Shellow, negotiated a plea deal that prevented Austin from having to register as a sex offender or spend any additional time in jail.

This might not have been possible without the involvement of the DKT Liberty Project, an advocacy organization that promotes individual liberty. After learning about Austin's situation in the pages of Reason, the DKT Liberty Project agreed to pay his attorney's fees.

While the avoidance of a jail sentence was a major relief to both Austin and his mother, they were disappointed in the outcome, given that a misdemeanor conviction could still ruin Austin's life. And he was being treated like a sex offender anyway—he faced significant lifestyle restrictions that left him little choice but to sit at home, wondering if he could ever return to school.

Since the misdemeanor charge would technically prevent Austin from completing high school, Shellow asked the judge to vacate Austin's conviction. On Tuesday, the judge agreed—which means Austin can go back to school, as a free young man.

Still, his ordeal isn't over. After Austin finishes school, the court will resentence him in accordance with a misdemeanor conviction.

In essence, Austin has been granted a reprieve to make it more convenient for him to attend school. And he's no longer facing felony charges, as long as he stays out of trouble for a while.

Presumably, however, the court will reimpose the probation after he finishes out the school year. Instead, prosecutors should drop the case entirely.

Austin isn't a threat to society, or to children. He is the one in danger—in danger of being branded a sex offender for engaging in perfectly normal teen behavior.

The authorities in this case have shown a willingness to be practical and consider what's best for Austin. But doing what's really best for Austin means going one step further—dropping the case entirely.

Robby Soave is an associate editor at Reason.com.

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