Below is today’s column in USA Today (which will run in paper form next week). It appears that the police will look into the possibility of statutory rape and someone should be brushing up on defamation law as well.
The news this week that a 20-year-old woman had accused teen idol Justin Bieber of fathering her child sent tabloid reporters into collective hyperventilation.
For lawyers, however, the most interesting aspect of this claim was that it could only be made by Mariah Yeater confessing to statutory rape. The problem is that Bieber was just 16 years old in California where the age of consent is 18. Thus, Yeater would only prevail by establishing that he is a rape victim and she is a statutory rapist.
While Bieber denies any sexual encounter with Yeater (and indeed ever meeting her), Los Angeles Police Commander Andrew Smith has said that, given the publicity, “Of course we’ll look into it.” In the meantime, her attorney insists that they will go forward despite any statutory rape charge to secure paternity liability against Bieber. It is true that paternity laws focus on fatherhood rather than adulthood in determining such liability.
Certainly, if history is any measure, the threat of a statutory rape charge has not been a major deterrent in celebrity circles. The sad truth is that statutory rape is nothing new in Hollywood. Errol Flynn was well known for his preference for under-aged girls, which he referred to as his “San Quentin Quail.” He was prosecuted for statutory rape in 1943 but acquitted after jurors learned that one of the girls had had a prior abortion.
Likewise, Charlie Chaplin was also repeatedly accused of affairs with under-aged girls and actually married two 16-year-olds in successive marriages in 1918 and 1924.
It was a surprise to many, not the least of whom was Roman Polanski, when prosecutors charged the director in 1977 with statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. After all, in Hollywood, Polanski was the ultimate alpha male in a city built to glorify and serve celebrities.
The Bieber case is a type of Roman Polanski case in the reverse. Here the celebrity is allegedly the victim and the groupie is the aggressor. Of course, the notion of a celebrity as a victim can seem counter-intuitive. After all, celebrities of any age are viewed as powerful — the top of our food chain in a star-obsessed society. Moreover, the mystique surrounding celebrities makes them seem ageless as if a Justin Bieber or a Macaulay Culkin are simply playing children. They are members of a monolithic genus of humans who transcend age or notions of propriety.
In the case of Bieber, his alleged adult paramour insists that he was a willing participant and that they were mutually attracted to each other when she asked to meet him after a concert on the night of October 25, 2010. That instant connection, according to Yeager, led to a 30-second tryst in a bathroom. What is most striking is that there is no indication that she views herself as pursuing a child for sex. Perhaps the thinking goes, he is not a child, but a celebrity. By extension, she is not a child rapist, but a type of sexual celebrity tourist.
The law, however, views it differently. There is a reason why the age of consent and the age of majority are set relatively high. At age 16, state law does not view a young person as having the maturity to make decisions of consent. This is the point of statutory rape. While consensual, one party does not have the capacity to consent. In California, someone more than three years older than a sexual partner who is under the age of consent can be charged with a felony. In this case, Yeater’s attorney insists that she was within three years of Bieber’s age — making her crime only a misdemeanor.
Historically, prosecutors seem reluctant to bring actions under the celebrity-as-victim theory. For example, in 2007, there was extensive media coverage of the pregnancy of then 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, sister of Britney Spears and a television star in her own right. Few seemed to note that the father, Casey Aldridge, had fathered a child with a child.
The problem is that prosecutors are not so reluctant to prosecute other alleged statutory rape cases of non-celebrities. While some states have passed “Romeo and Juliet” laws that exclude teenage lovers, other states continue to prosecute minors who have sex with other minors. Often it is the boys who are prosecuted and given records as sex offenders.
For example, in 2005, Genarlow Wilson, 17, was tried for the rape of a 15-year-old girl in Georgia. While he was ultimately convicted of aggravated child molestation, he was given a 10-year sentence and served two years before a court struck down the sentence.
Regardless of whether Bieber is a deadbeat dad or a rape victim or neither, this controversy could have a positive impact if it leads to a reexamination of statutory rape laws for celebrities and non-celebrities alike.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.