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Dr_Dredd's avatar

Can a district attorney threaten to prosecute someone for following a legitimate law?

Asked by Dr_Dredd (10523points) April 9th, 2010

In Wiconsin, Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth is doing just that. The legislature recently passed, and the governor signed, a law requiring schools to have comprehensive sex education curricula. This would include instruction on contraceptives and methods of preventing sexually transmitted diseases.

The district attorney has sent schools a letter stating, “If a teacher instructs any student aged 16 or younger how to utilize contraceptives under circumstances where the teacher knows the child is engaging in sexual activity with another child – or even where the ‘natural and probable consequences’ of the teacher’s instruction is to cause that child to engage in sexual intercourse with a child – that teacher can be charged for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

Is Southworth’s action a misuse of his prosecutorial power? Can he threaten someone with legal action simply for following another law?

It is worth noting that he also has a religious agenda. He has said, “You shouldn’t have sex before marriage because that’s the Christian perspective. I’m an evangelical.”

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18 Answers

john65pennington's avatar

Hard to give an answer, without reading the full content of the newly passed law. is there a site where the new law can be read in its entirety?

WestRiverrat's avatar

He can threaten anything. Whether the citizens of Juneau County should allow him to get away with it is another matter.

I would be petitioning to have him removed from his office.

dpworkin's avatar

He can make any threat he likes. That’s what judges are for.

Tropical_Willie's avatar

This is my read on it, the DA cannot arrest the teachers.
The DA cannot invent a law.
The DA can only act as prosecutor for the laws.

I am not a Lawyer, Judge, Police Officer, Governor or Legislator.

Val123's avatar

What a fool.

njnyjobs's avatar

If what the DA is saying is correct and a current law, then YES he can threaten suspected offenders and even go to the extent as charge the suspects of violating such law. . . . Whether or not a case has legs or that he can win the case is another matter.

bobloblaw's avatar

He has probably violated a rule of ethics, as opposed to an actual law. He may be subject to professional discipline by the State Bar. Of course, this is dependent upon how he threatened the schools and what language he used.

njnyjobs's avatar

@bobloblaw here’s a statement as published by the Associated PressSouthworth said he doesn’t want to drag teachers into court but feels he was ethically responsible for warning them of the new law’s potential consequences. He urged the school districts to refrain from offering sex education courses until the Legislature repeals the law.

Apparently, in Wisconsin, children under age 17 who have sex with each other can be prosecuted as juveniles. Seventeen-year-olds who have sex with one another can be convicted as adults of a misdemeanor. The DA, in his mind, seems to think that he is providing the school administrators and teachers with an expert advise than a threat of criminalizing them.

bobloblaw's avatar

@njnyjobs What I meant to say was that it depends on the actual text of the letter that he used. If it’s in the same language that the AP is making it out to be, I would say it’s, obviously, more political posturing than actual legal grounds.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Having elected DAs leads to corruption and prosecutorial misconduct. Having elected judges compounds the problem.

These positions are best filled on the basis of merit within the legal community. That’s how we do things in Canada.

filmfann's avatar

The DA can charge as he sees fit, but he will have to answer to a judge, and possibly the State Bar.

njnyjobs's avatar

@bobloblaw the AP can not just make it out to be, I assume that as a respectable news organization that they are actually reporting the facts and not painting a position that leans one way or another.

Nevertheless, the OP’s questions are themselves, in my perspective, slanted/opinionated, and i do believe (based on the AP article) that the DA’s action was neither unethical nor illegal.

davidbetterman's avatar

“If a teacher instructs any student aged 16 or younger how to utilize contraceptives under circumstances where the teacher knows the child is engaging in sexual activity with another child… that teacher can be charged for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

Well, yes…that is contributing to the delinquency of a minor, is it not?

Whether of not the charges will stick in a court of law is another matter. But the DA is using a technique we call intimidation…and many teachers there will probably not inform these students of contraceptive use.

Another victory for a scummy lowlife DA.

laureth's avatar

@john65penningtonHere’s the law in question.

And here’s the letter the guy wrote to the school districts.

Does he really think this will prevent horny teenagers from screwing around? Methinks this guy is either living in a dream world, or his Republican family values include making sure teens have families of their own. Either way, not so good.

To answer the question, though, “Walter J. Dickey, a law professor at UW-Madison who specializes in criminal law, said it’s unlikely a judge would find much merit in charging a teacher with contributing to the delinquency of a minor simply for teaching the new curriculum.”

“The courts would give “enormous deference to the recent legislative action” — i.e., the new sex ed statute — and would assume that legislators knew enough about what they were doing to not put teachers who teach the curriculum at risk for being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, he said.” (Source)

What a maroon.

bobloblaw's avatar

@njnyjobs I did not mean to say that the AP was being biased in their reporting. I only meant to say that if the language in the letter is about the same as their summary of the language in terms of tone and word usage, then it is unlikely that there are any violations, but, even that, would be up to the state bar. I would note that OP only provided an excerpt of the full letter. I don’t think there’s a full version online.

Professor Eugene Volokh has a very good analysis of the prosecutor’s letter over at his blog. The post doesn’t settle the issue of whether it’s illegal for the prosecutor to send the letter, but it does address the tangential issue of whether teachers violate the law by merely teaching about contraceptives.

thriftymaid's avatar

The DA may be aware of a “congressional intention” that has not made it into the statute. A prosecution or action is the way to do that. There may simply be a conflict of state law which will have to be sorted out in court. Not enough facts to know.

Dr_Dredd's avatar

@bobloblaw Thanks for posting the link to Professor Volokh’s blog. I’ve been reading Professor Jonathan Turley’s take on it. He doesn’t directly address the legal issue, but calls the prosecutor’s action “a shocking abuse of office and worthy of review by the Wisconsin bar.”

I agree with Professor Turley. There may very well be a problem with the laws as written. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. But it seems to me that there are ways for a DA to get his point across, and then there are ways. The letter seemed designed to intimidate, which would be an abuse of power, in my opinion.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

”...or even where the ‘natural and probable consequences’ of the teacher’s instruction is to cause that child to engage in sexual intercourse with a child – that teacher can be charged for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

My answer to this threat would be, “Okay, asshole, prove that.”

What Juneau County really needs at this time is a ballsy John Thomas Scopes to stand up and test this bastard’s mettle. I say get your ducks and Darrows in a row and teach this class to eighth graders, then let this manic prick of a DA have his way with the law. By the time it’s over, the Juneau County taxpayers would be so pissed off at the expense of dragging this through the State Supreme Court they would burn the DA’s office down and ride the sonuvabitch who presently occupies it out on a rail sans license, and our Mr. Scopes would win hands down, unlike the last time something like this came up. Wisconsin ain’t Tennessee and this ain’t 1925.

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