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Georgia Supreme Court Finds Teen’s Sentencing for Molestation Offense Unconstitutional

November 7, 2023

The statute's sentencing scheme was unfair to a 17-year-old defendant whose less-egregious conduct made him ineligible for misdemeanor punishment.

In Regan v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Georgia’s sentencing scheme for child molestation offenses was unconstitutional because it created an unwarranted disparity between how misdemeanor offenses were defined in cases involving teenagers.

Georgia’s Child Molestation Statute

Under Georgia law, the offenses for both child molestation and aggravated child molestation are contained in O.C.G.A. § 16-6-4. The only difference between the two offenses is that aggravated child molestation occurs when there is either an injury to the child or the commission of an act of sodomy.

For most defendants, a sentence for aggravated child molestation carries a much harsher punishment with a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison followed by probation for life. However, both offenses have misdemeanor provisions that apply for defendants who are 18 years of age or younger.

For child molestation, the misdemeanor provision applies when the victim is at least 14 years old, the defendant is 18 or younger, and the defendant is no more than 4 years older than the victim. For aggravated child molestation, the misdemeanor provision is similar but it applies when the offense involves an act of sodomy and the victim is at least 13 years old.

Therefore, a 17-year-old who commits a molestation offense against a 13-year-old can get a misdemeanor sentence if charged with aggravated child molestation but not if the charge is just simple child molestation.

The Defendant’s Constitutional Challenge

The defendant in this case was 17 years old and charged with a child molestation offense that involved his 13-year-old stepsister. The offense did not involve an act of sodomy or an injury to the child so he could not have been charged with aggravated child molestation.

The defendant entered a guilty plea to the charge but argued at sentencing that he should receive a misdemeanor sentence. He argued that had he committed the more serious offense of aggravated child molestation, he would be subject to misdemeanor punishment.

He contended that this disparity violated his equal protection rights under the constitution since other 17-year-old defendants who committed similar, if not more serious, offenses could receive misdemeanor punishment while he could not.

Supreme Court’s Constitutional Analysis

At the outset, the Court noted that their standard for determining an equal protection claim was whether the defendant was “similarly situated in all relevant respects” with other 17-year-old defendants who have received misdemeanor sentences for aggravated child molestation offenses.

To start, these defendants all committed the offense of child molestation against victims who were 13 years old. The only difference is that the defendant’s crime did not involve an act of sodomy. The Court stated that the next question is whether this distinction warrants unequal treatment under the law.

The Court pointed out that the legislature clearly determined that a molestation offense involving an act of sodomy was worse than other molestation offenses. As a result, the legislature created two different offenses with different punishments. For felony offenses, an act involving sodomy is punished much more harshly than other molestation offenses.

The Court found that the legislature has a rational basis for treating cases involving sodomy differently as well as for providing different punishments for molestation offenses based on the ages of the defendant and victim.

However, the Court was troubled with the sentencing scheme created by the legislature as it resulted in a very unique circumstance for the defendant: he did not engage in sodomy but he was being punished more harshly than other teens who did. So, by not engaging in the conduct that would typically make the offense aggravated, the defendant was being subjected to a greater punishment.

The Court concluded that this result was in direct contradiction to the legitimate legislative purposes that created these distinctions in the first place. As a result, the Court held that this sentencing scheme violated the defendant’s equal protection rights under the constitution.

The defendant’s sentence was vacated and the Court remanded the case back to the trial court to impose a misdemeanor sentence.

Implications for Future Cases

The effect of this opinion would essentially eliminate the unequal misdemeanor sentencing provisions for child molestation and aggravated child molestation offenses. Thus, unless the statute is further amended by the legislature, it will be interpreted now as providing for misdemeanor punishment for either offense if the victim is at least 13 and the defendant is no more than 4 years older.

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