Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Loophole in Florida child-sex law vexes activists

CLEARWATER — For activists across Florida, the recent rape of a 12-year-old girl in a Clearwater apartment demonstrates a loophole in Florida law that could allow child sex offenders to escape the harshest penalties.

Under existing law, those accused of having sex with children ages 12 to 16 often face charges of lewd and lascivious battery.

For sex crimes against children just a year younger, that charge is capital felony rape.

The state's stance, according to child injury lawyer David Wolf, is clear: "If you have sex with a 12-year-old, you're in trouble. If you have sex with an 11-year-old, you're in a lot of trouble."

The legal line-in-the-sand was played out after Clearwater police say a 12-year-old runaway received money in exchange for sex earlier this week.

Police arrested two men on charges of lewd and lascivious battery and say more arrests could be coming.

Victorino Panzo-Panzo, 37, and Abel Calihua-Macuixtle, 30, face second-degree felony charges.

Those charges aren't enough, said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, whose district includes parts of North Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

He's confident that prosecutors will stack further charges against the men but warned that if they couldn't within existing laws, he'd pursue new legislation.

"There are too many opportunities for these criminals — these rapists — to find loopholes," Fasano said.

Fasano's legal team suggested a number of avenues prosecutors could seek to bump up charges to a possible life felony.

Those avenues include proving the victim was physically helpless or under immediate threats from the suspects.

That could be a tough sell in court, however, as police have said the suspects were paying — rather than threatening — the victim.

As the case stands, both suspects face a maximum 15 years in prison. Had the victim been a year younger, both would face a maximum of life in prison.

The situation could raise questions among children's advocates wondering how the state makes sweeping judgments of a child's maturity based on age, as opposed to individual psychological development.

"Although it is not a black-and-white issue, keeping children safe is a black-and-white issue," said Lisa Negrini of Pinellas County's Help a Child Inc.

It's inappropriate, she said, for state law — especially in cases of sex — to assume children all develop at the same speed.

"These are kids you sometimes wouldn't let babysit," said Jill Turner of the Children's Advocacy Center of Southwest Florida.

The state suggesting that sex with a 12-year-old is different than sex with an 11-year-old doesn't make sense, she said.

Florida, however, isn't the only state to designate 12 as a cut-off age.

A former Louisiana law — overturned in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court — allowed for the execution of those found guilty of raping children younger than 12.

Then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain decried the ruling.

McCain called the ruling "an assault on law enforcement's efforts to punish these heinous felons for the most despicable crime."

A 1981 Florida Supreme Court ruling barring the practice was mentioned in the decision.

But if 12 is an arbitrary age, as some advocates argue, what are the state's other options?

Introducing complicating factors such as a child's maturity level could be a logistical nightmare, Wolf said.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said the laws regarding sex with children have changed little over the years. State attorneys will work with the laws provided to prosecute those charged in the Clearwater case to the fullest extent, he said, but didn't specify whether the men charged in this case would face new charges.

He explained that the cut-off age for capital rape was likely part of an effort to provide special protection for young children, as opposed to providing less protection for older children.

None of that matters for the advocates who want to see child rapists behind bars.

"We don't want men who are predators going around seeing if a child is 12 or 11," Turner said.

Brian Spegele can be reached at or (727) 445-4154.

Loophole in Florida child-sex law vexes activists 07/15/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 3:53am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Marijuana extract sharply cuts seizures in severe form of epilepsy


    An oil derived from the marijuana plant sharply reduces violent seizures in young people suffering from a rare, severe form of epilepsy, according to a study published last week that gives more hope to parents who have been clamoring for access to the medication.

  2. 'I ain't fit to live': Police say Mississippi gunman kills 8


    BROOKHAVEN, Miss. — A man who got into an argument with his estranged wife and her family over his children was arrested Sunday in a house-to-house shooting rampage in rural Mississippi that left eight people dead, including his mother-in-law and a sheriff's deputy.

    People embrace Sunday outside the Bogue Chitto, Miss., house where eight people were killed during a shooting rampage Saturday in Lincoln County, Miss.
  3. Kushner's Russia ties questioned as Trump cites media 'lies'


    WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Sunday demanded to hear directly from top White House adviser Jared Kushner over allegations of proposed secret back-channel communications with Russia, saying the security clearance of President Donald Trump's son-in-law may need to be revoked.

  4. Muslims thankful for support after rant, deadly attack


    PORTLAND, Ore. — Muslims in Portland, Ore., thanked the community for its support and said they were raising money for the families of two men who were killed when they came to the defense of two young women — one wearing a hijab — who were targeted by an anti-Muslim rant.

    Jeremy Christian is accused of killing 2 men who stepped in as he berated two women.
  5. Following Trump's trip, Merkel says Europe can't rely on U.S. anymore


    LONDON — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday declared a new chapter in U.S.-European relations after contentious meetings with President Donald Trump last week, saying that Europe "really must take our fate into our own hands."

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, shown speaking with President Trump last week, says Europe “must take our fate into our own hands.”