SEATTLE -- The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that student age doesn't matter in teacher-sex cases, even if the student is 18 and considered an adult by other state laws.
The case involves Matthew Hirschfelder, a former choir teacher at Hoquiam High School, who had been charged with first-degree sexual misconduct with a minor in 2006. An 18-year-old choir member told police she had been involved in a sexual relationship with him.
Hirschfelder, who was 33 at the time, denies any relationship occurred. He asked a lower-court judge to dismiss the case because the girl was not a minor. The judge refused to dismiss the case and encouraged the Court of Appeals to clarify what state law said on the issue. The appeals court ruled in January 2009 that the statute did not criminalize sexual relations between students and teachers.
A few months later, the Legislature clarified the law, saying all sex between school employees and full-time registered students 16 or older is illegal.
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The Supreme Court on a vote of 5-4 reversed the appeals court and said the state law was not unconstitutionally vague.
A former Richland High music teacher faced the same charge in 2007 for allegedly having weekly sex with an 18-year-old student in the school's band supply room, but a Benton County Superior Court judge said the law was too vague because "minor" wasn't defined. He dismissed the charge.
Prosecutors opted not to appeal the judge's decision because the victims didn't want to wait for a lengthy appeals process to be completed. Deputy Prosecutor Adrienne Farabee said Thursday that the Supreme Court's decision doesn't affect Allan Eve's case because it already is closed.
Eve, now 61, ended up pleading guilty in March 2009 to communicating with a minor for immoral purposes, a gross misdemeanor, for leaving intimate notes in another student's lockers. A third charge of fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation relating to another student was dropped in exchange for his plea.
The veteran Richland School District teacher was sentenced to 75 days on work release.
In the Hoquiam case, Rob Morgan Hill of Olympia, Hirschfelder's attorney, was surprised by the Supreme Court's ruling.
"I thought that the issues were so clear that it was logically impossible for them to decide as they did," Morgan Hill said.
He was surprised by the way the court ruled on unconstitutional vagueness, since the legal standard says a law should be written so a person of common intelligence will understand it.
The Supreme Court's decision implies that four Supreme Court judges and three appeals court justices have below common intelligence because they interpreted state law differently than the five justices in the majority, Morgan Hill said.
"Which is bizarre," he added.
Morgan Hill said he expected his client would want to appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They have 90 days to bring that petition.
Megan M. Valentine, Grays Harbor County deputy prosecuting attorney, said she felt the Supreme Court took a common sense approach to the case and was clear in explaining the reasons for their decision.
Hirschfelder argued that the former statute, entitled "sexual misconduct with a minor in the first degree" was not intended to criminalize sexual intercourse between school employees and registered students age 18 or older because of the statute's use of the word "minor."
He argued that the term "minor" is ambiguous.
In the decision, written by Justice Debra L. Stephens and signed by justices Barbara Madsen, Gerry Alexander, Mary Fairhurst and James Johnson, the justices argue that they must focus on the plain language of the statute, which prohibits sexual relations between school employees and registered students. They cite another statute that defines students as anyone enrolled in school and under 21.
"Reading 'minor' as Hirschfelder urges -- to exclude those students 18 or older -- renders the words 'registered student' in the statute meaningless," the decision said.
The dissent, written by Chief Justice Charles W. Johnson and signed by justices Susan Owens, Richard B. Sanders and Tom Chambers, argues the majority did not properly interpret state law and used the wrong statutes to make its argument, while ignoring others that would have fit the case better.
"The majority's conclusion is inconsistent with the statutory scheme, taken as a whole, and does not, ultimately make sense," Johnson wrote in his dissent.
He called the majority's explanations unpersuasive and imprecise.
The dissent also criticizes the majority for rewriting a "bright-line rule."
"We should not use the statute to criminalize conduct between two consenting adults where the Legislature has expressly provided otherwise," Johnson wrote.