Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler* told The New York Times "the only part that is concerning" about The Washington Post's description of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore's relationships with teenaged girls is the alleged sexual encounter with Leigh Corfman when she was 14. That's debatable, since voters (especially the social conservatives to whom Moore appeals) might think there is something a bit creepy about a deputy district attorney in his 30s dating girls half his age. But it would be correct to say that the purported 1979 incident involving Corfman is the only thing in the Post story that amounts to a crime—two crimes, in fact, both of which, thanks to Alabama's sex offender rules, would continue to haunt and handicap Moore nearly four decades later if he had been convicted of them.
Corfman says Moore drove her to his home, where he took off his clothes except for his underwear, kissed her, removed her pants and shirt, touched her over her bra and panties, and started guiding her hand toward his crotch. She objected and asked him to take her home, which he did. In a written statement quoted by the Post, Moore said "these allegations are completely false." But if they are true, Zeigler says, it would simply mean that "he went a little too far and he stopped."
That is not the view taken by Alabama law, which sets the age of consent at 16 and defines Moore's alleged touching of Corfman as sexual abuse in the second degree, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. Furthermore, it is a Class C felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison, "for any person with lascivious intent to entice, allure, persuade, or invite…any child under 16 years of age to enter any vehicle, room, house, office, or other place for the purpose of proposing to such child the performance of an act of sexual intercourse or an act which constitutes the offense of sodomy or for the purpose of proposing the fondling or feeling of the sexual or genital parts of such child or the breast of such child…or for the purpose of proposing that such child fondle or feel the sexual or genital parts of such person."
Either of these crimes would have made Moore a sex offender required to register for life, even though Alabama's Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification Act (SORCNA) was not passed until long after he allegedly dated Corfman. In 2015 a federal judge described SORCNA, which applies retroactively to people convicted before it was enacted, as "the most comprehensive, debilitating sex-offender scheme in the land." The law imposes lifetime registration, including appearance in a publicly accessible online database, on all sex offenders, no matter the nature of their crime or the risk they pose. It requires them to appear in person at local law enforcement agencies every three months (every week if they are homeless), carry a special driver's license indicating their stigmatized status, and seek permission in advance for any trips outside their county of residence that will last three days or longer.
Sex offenders who live in municipalities have to report to the local police chief as well as the county sheriff and obtain travel permits from both. SORCNA prohibits sex offenders from living or working within 2,000 feet (about one-third of a mile) of a school or child care facility, regardless of whether their crimes involved children. They also may not work within 500 feet of "a playground, park, athletic field or facility, or any other business having a principal purpose of caring for, educating, or entertaining minors"—again, even if their offenses had nothing to do with children.
Those rules give you a sense of what Roy Moore's life would have been like if the actions alleged by Corfman had led to his arrest and conviction. A record as a sex offender probably would have prevented him from getting elected as a state circuit judge, getting elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, and winning the Republican Senate primary. The burdens of registration would continue to constrain and complicate his day-to-day decisions, impinge on his livelihood, and expose him to ostracism and harassment—all because he "went a little too far" with a girl who was a little too young.
Addendum: Judging from the reaction on Twitter, this post has been misconstrued as defending Moore or minimizing his alleged actions. To the contrary, I was pointing out that what Zeigler dismisses as going "a little too far" is a serious crime under Alabama law. I have changed the headline to clarify that point.
The "sex offender" label covers a wide range of people, some of whom have done things (such as consensual sexting) that should not be crimes at all and some of whom have done things (such as forcible rape) that deserve severe punishment. Moore's alleged encounter with Corfman, to my mind, falls somewhere in between. If Zeigler and other social conservatives who support Moore are suddenly willing to acknowledge important distinctions among sex offenders, they should consider the possibility that laws like Alabama's are too indiscriminate to be sensible or just.
*Correction: I originally misattributed Zeigler's comments to Randy Brinson, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, who told the Times, "Until I see something different, I would support Roy Moore because of what he says he's going to do and who he is as a person."