Austin Yabandith just turned 18. But he's not allowed to see his friends, stay out past 9:00 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. Thanks to a plea agreement in Demember, he will will avoid prison time and the sex offender registry as conditions of his plea agreement.
But life has still been difficult for Austin. According to the conditions of his probation, which are listed on a document give to him by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, ordinary teen activities are almost entirely off the table. The document dictating those terms is titled "Standard Sex Offender Rules," even though Austin was not convicted of a felony and does not have to register as a sex offender.
If that sounds unfair, consider this: Austin initially discovered he also wouldn't be able to finish his senior year and graduate high school. Thankfully, this problem has been resolved.
The additional trouble stemmed from the fact that Austin had transferred schools—he was recently attending 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 labelled a sex offender in Minnesota (but not Wisconsin).
Readers will recall that Austin was 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). Austin and Kim dated for more than a year, were engaged in a consensual sexual relationship, and had the blessing of Kim's parents—they even supplied the couple with birth control.
At the time, Kim was 15 years old, and Austin was 17.
Unbeknownst to Austin, Kim sent additional nude pictures of herself to other boys at the school. School officials eventually learned that students were sexting each other, 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 agreed, to his eternal regret agreed.
The other boys—the ones who had shared Kim's pictures and actually engaged in 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 previous reporting on the case, Austin's mother was able to raise enough money to hire a lawyer who specializes in these kinds of cases. That lawyer, Robin Shellow, negotiated a plea deal that would prevent 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 for 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 go back to school.
Since even the misdemeanor would prevent him 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, a free man.
Still, his ordeal isn't over. After Austin finishes school, the court will re-sentence him in accordance with a misdemeanor conviction.
In essence, Austin has been granted a reprieve to make it more convenient for him to go to 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 re-impose probation on him 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.