Proving a Minor’s Sexual Purpose for Sexual Assault Crimes

A recent Court of Appeals opinion turned on a point of law that sometimes trips up folks in sexual assault cases: When a juvenile is alleged to have committed a sexual assault requiring proof of a sexual purpose, the State has to prove more than the act itself.

Some crimes require a sexual purpose. For example, one version of Indecent Liberties requires that the perpetrator act “for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire.” See Jessica Smith, North Carolina Crimes: A Guidebook on the Elements of Crime 246 (7th ed. 2012). Likewise, Sexual Battery requires that the perpetrator act “for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse.” Id. at 254. In prosecutions involving adult defendants, the element of sexual purpose may be inferred from the very act itself. However, as the Court of Appeals held in the recent case, In re S.A.A., ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 20, 2016), that rule doesn’t apply with respect to juveniles.

S.A.A. was a juvenile delinquency case involving a thirteen-year-old alleged to have committed sexual battery against two eleven-year-old female schoolmates. The sexual battery allegedly occurred when the juvenile draped his arms around the girls’ shoulders so that he could smear a green glowing liquid on them during Halloween trick-or-treating. The juvenile and some of his friends were out on Halloween evening. The juvenile’s costume involved a black body suit, LED light teeth, and “glow gloves.” After one of his gloves broke, the juvenile began wiping glowing green liquid from the glove on trees, signs, and people. The juvenile came up between the girls in question from behind, draped an arm over each girl’s shoulder and wiped the green glowing liquid on them. The two later reported the juvenile for touching their breasts and the delinquency proceeding ensued. The juvenile admitted wiping the liquid on the girls’ shoulders but denied touching their breasts. The juvenile was adjudicated delinquent and appealed.

Finding the evidence insufficient to establish the required sexual purpose for sexual battery, the Court of Appeals reversed. The court began by noting that in juvenile cases, the element of sexual purpose cannot be proved by the act itself, as it can in adult cases. Rather, to prove that element with respect to a juvenile, there must be “evidence of the child’s maturity, intent, experience, or other factor indicating his purpose in acting.” Slip op. at 7-8 (quotation omitted). Here, the court noted, the juvenile and the girls were close in age and all were students at the same middle school. Neither the location nor the alleged manner of the touching was secretive in nature; rather, it occurred on a public street with other juveniles who were trick-or-treating, running around, “and generally behaving as children and young teens might be expected to do on Halloween night.” Id. at 10-11. The juvenile had been wiping the green glowing liquid on trees, signs, and other people and nothing about his attitude suggested a sexual motivation in rubbing the liquid on the girls. Neither girl testified that the juvenile made any sexual remarks to them, either at the time or on any other occasion. Also, a witness testified that when one girl told the juvenile to stop putting the liquid on her, he complied, apologized, and walked away. And finally, the court noted, after the girls left, the juvenile did not pursue or try to stop them, or attempt to exert control over them in any way. The court thus held that the evidence failed to support an inference that the juvenile touched the girls for a sexual purpose.

Interested in other related cases? Here are a few:

In re K.C., 226 N.C. App. 452, 457 (2013) (evidence of sexual purpose for sexual battery was insufficient where, among other things, the juvenile and the victim were the same age; there was no evidence that the juvenile exercised control over the situation; and the incident occurred in a public school room during the day).

In re A.W., 209 N.C. App. 596, 600-01 (2011) (in an indecent liberties between children case the evidence was sufficient to show a sexual purpose; the 13-year-old juvenile told the victim (who was ten years younger) that the juvenile’s privates “taste like candy” and had the victim lick his penis; approximately eleven months prior, the juvenile admitted to having performed fellatio on a four-year-old male relative; the juvenile’s age and maturity, the age disparity between him and the victim, coupled with the inducement he employed to convince the victim to perform the act and the suggestion of his prior sexual activity before this event constituted sufficient evidence of maturity and intent to show a sexual purpose).

In re T.C.S., 148 N.C. App. 297, 302-03 (2002) (in an indecent liberties case the evidence was sufficient to support finding that juvenile acted with a sexual purpose; the age disparity between the juvenile and the victim, the control exercised by the juvenile, the location and secretive nature of the actions, and the juvenile’s attitude was evidence of the juvenile’s maturity and intent).

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