Celebrities and Statutory Rape: Is Justin Bieber A Victim of Statutory Rape or Defamation?

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.

30 thoughts on “Celebrities and Statutory Rape: Is Justin Bieber A Victim of Statutory Rape or Defamation?”

  1. This isn’t the type of case I would usually handle, but if I were her lawyer, I would insist on a positive DNA test proving Bieberthe father. But then again no one with a brain would represent a statutory rapist in a paternity suit.

  2. If the woman’s version is correct, how can he be victim? He would have SOUGHT and ENCOURAGED the sexual encounter. You don’t hear anyone screeching that Lindsay Lohan was a victim of statutory rape when she was screwing Wilmer Valderama when she was 17, do you?

  3. If any woman ever said I was party to a “30-second tryst”, you better believe I’d be screaming defamation….

  4. Since he is a minor….yes she can be charged….But can he disavow this responsibility once he turns 18.Something about the SO Frauds or the Statue of Anne….

  5. Anon,
    The only false accusation would be her claim and she is the one who would have committed a crime if she had sex with a minor.

  6. @rafflaw

    Thanks, I guess that’s true. She hasn’t accused him of a crime,

    A malicious false accusation of a criminal offense is a crime, right? No?

  7. anon,
    as Prof. Turley suggested, if there was no encounter, then it may not be a criminal matter, but it could be a defamation case.

  8. 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

    The paternity test will be decisive on major issues. If Beiber is not the father the woman is in deep doo doo all the way around.

    If he is the father then he has also lied about it by denying he ever even saw her, and she will be seen as sacrificing herself for the infant, should she be prosecuted for stat rape.

    Bottom line, the paternity test will exorcise the demons and place the sins where they belong.

    The defamation claims will be nothing more than a liars contest should Bieber not be the father of the child, with favor toward Bieber.

  9. @David,

    Give the kid to Bieber,
    Throw the sexual predator in jail.

    What philosophy or principle are you following that states the woman should get off more lightly because she is a female or now has a child?

    Isn’t this another case of the classic definition of chutzpah?

    Your honor, I know I am a rapist, I beg for the court’s mercy because now I am a mother.

    If Bieber doesn’t want the kid, put it up for adoption.

    If a male rapist had raped a female, and she did not want the kid, would the male get custody?

    Come on, feminists, let’s hear some demands for equity and equality here.

  10. As to defamation, I’m not sure this will harm Bieber unless the test is positive but then it won’t be defamation. Different in the UK because there is currently no burden to show harm; something we hope to change.

  11. Age of consent in the UK is 16 but sex happens between people younger than that. The law tends to step in when one of the party is on one side of the line to the other.

    I think there are various considerations regarding relative age and maturity of both parties when determining if justise will be served by bringing charges.

    I have no doubt Bieber was in an environment where he was adequately protected from abuse and that if anything did happen it was because he evaded measures aimed at protecting him in order that something might happen. Either that or there was cooperation by those in whoms care he was in.

    Can a girl take advantage of a horny 16 year old, well I guess she could have perhaps even with the intent of having his child. To what degree should she be punished is hard to say because in this case the child will suffer.

    The child deserves to have this matter resolved while it’s still young enough that the affects of the results of the paternity test can be mitigated either way.

  12. rafflaw, if it is proven they did not have an encounter, what charges do you think should be pressed?

  13. Two other issues:

    1) Custody support
    2) Who gets custody

    1) Support

    In California and other states, though statutory rape is based on the premise that an underage person cannot consent, family courts all the time rule that the rapists are entitled to child support from the victim.

    If the claim is that the baby is entitled to child support in order to have a decent life, but one of the parents is a victim of rape, then there really is no logic to assigning the victim of rape a 18-24 year long financial penalty, and one that is probably financially crippling for many, or in Bieber’s case, an obscene reward for the rapist (since the custody support is given as a proportion of the parent’s incomes).

    A more fair solution, if the child is entitled to support, is for welfare or the state to pick up the cost of that support, to take the child away from the rapist and to jail the rapist.

    Which brings up the next point

    2) Custody

    The rapist should be tossed in jail, as we would any rapist, and the other parent should be given sole custody of the child, if they want custody of the child, otherwise, the child should be taken away and provided to adoptive parents.

  14. Great article Professor. Ms. Yeater has some explaining to do. I hope the authorities press charges if it is proven that they had an encounter.

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