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Lawmaker clarifies ‘crimes against nature’ proposal

RICHMOND—Sen. Tom Garrett would like to make one thing clear: He is not interested in legislating about underage sex.

What he wants, Garrett said, is to rework Virginia’s old and unconstitutional “crimes against nature” statute so that prosecutors can still use it to punish adults who ask minors for oral or anal sex.

But Garrett’s effort has earned him a lot of mockery on national liberal blogs, and raised questions from groups here in Richmond like the American Civil Liberties Union, which says Garrett’s bill is an attempt to refashion a code section that should just be taken off the books.

The background is this: In 2003, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Lawrence v. Texas) knocked down a Texas statute that was similar enough to Virginia’s “crimes against nature” law that it invalidated the Virginia law. Virginia’s law had criminalized all oral or anal sex, even between married, consenting adults. Opponents of the law had said it was an archaic and unjustified intrusion into people’s private lives.

But Virginia lawmakers never actually took the law off the books, and it has apparently been entwined in prosecutions for sexual offenses for the past decade.

Last year, however, the Fourth Circuit Court reiterated that the law was invalid, in a case that involved a man who had been convicted under the Virginia sodomy law for soliciting oral sex from a minor.

Garrett wants his bill to rewrite the sodomy statute, protecting the rights of consenting adults to do whatever they please in the bedroom while still giving prosecutors a way to use the definitions in the law to punish adults soliciting oral or anal sex from underage teenagers. Garrett also said he hopes the bill will prevent those convicted over the past decade using the current sodomy statute from successfully arguing to overturn their convictions, based on the unconstitutionality of the current law.

Garrett said his bill would “bring Virginia’s code into the 21st century.”

But some groups, like the ACLU, say Garrett’s bill actually has some unintended consequences, like making consensual oral sex between two 17-year-olds a felony.

That wasn’t the plan, Garrett said.

“My intent was never to create a crime for consenting acts between teenagers,” he said. “It is to make sure that we continue to protect our children by bringing our law into compliance. We’re not trying to get involved in anybody’s sex life.”

In an effort to placate critics, Garrett said on Monday he had amended his bill to a copy of a 2004 bill from then-Sen. Patsy Ticer, which at the time was supported by the ACLU.

But Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of Virginia’s ACLU, said things have changed since then.

She said Garrett’s bill continues to treat oral and anal sex differently from sexual intercourse, and the ACLU doesn’t think there should be a difference between the types in the criminal statutes.

It also allows felony prosecutions of teenagers who voluntarily have oral sex, and would open the door to a felony prosecution for anyone who asks someone between 15 and 18 for oral or anal sex, even if no sex ever occurs.

Garrett said he’s been surprised by the negative reactions to his bill.

“The amount of print that’s been expended on a mischaracterization of the intent of the bill is beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” he said.

His bill will eventually come up before the Senate Courts of Justice committee, of which he is a member.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245


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