Washington state’s highest court ruled on Thursday that sex between a high school teacher and an 18-year-old student meets a state law’s definition of educator sexual misconduct with a minor.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that despite the use of the term “minor,” the statute in effect at the time of a teacher’s alleged actions unambiguously covered sexual misconduct with students up to age 21.
“We hold that the former statute’s plain language unambiguously defines minor as a registered student and thus includes students up to the age of 21,” said the majority opinion by Justice Debra L. Stephens in State of Washington v. Hirschfelder.
The Nov. 18 ruling came in the case of Matthew Hirschfelder, who was a 33-year-old high school choir teacher when he was charged with sexual misconduct with an 18-year-old female student shortly before the student’s graduation. Hirschfelder has denied having a sexual relationship with the student. A trial judge denied his motion to dismiss the charges on the theory that the statute was intended to cover sexual misconduct only with students under the age of 18, but the judge authorized an immediate appeal of that issue before trial.
An intermediate appellate court ruled for the defendant, but that decision was overturned by the state supreme court’s ruling. The state high court sent Hirschfelder’s case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
Justice Stephens discussed in detail the meanings of various state statutes before concluding that the sexual misconduct law was meant to cover sex between K-12 school personnel and any student age 16 to 21. (Sex abuse of children younger than 16 is covered by separate statutes.)
“That the legislature saw fit to criminalize sex between school employees and high school students—even those who reach the age of majority while registered as students—is a policy choice that recognizes the special position of trust and authority teachers hold over their students.”
The state legislature has since amended the law to clarify that it covers any sex between a school employee and an enrolled student up to age 21.
In a dissent, Justice Charles W. Johnson said the majority misapplied the state statute.
“We should not use the statute to criminalize conduct between two consenting adults where the legislature has expressly provided otherwise,” Justice Johnson said.
(Hat Tip to How Appealing for this case.)
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.