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No proof required in child rape that defendant knew victim’s age

An Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion says a federal prosecutor did not have to prove that a 26-year-old defendant knew the girl he had sex with was 14 years old. One of the three judges on the panel dissented.

The Iowa case represents the first time the Eighth Circuit has dealt with the issue. In their deliberation, appellate judges relied in part on a South Dakota rape conviction that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Eighth Circuit opinions become rule of law in South Dakota and six other states.

When Luis Alfredo Moreira-Bravo was tried in Iowa federal court for transporting a 14-year-old girl across the Iowa-Minnesota border to have sex with her, the judge in his case did not require the prosecutor to prove Moreira-Bravo knew the child was underage.

Moreira-Bravo was 26 at the time of his arrest. He told investigators the girl said she was 19, and he believed her.

If the wording of a state or federal law says the offender knowingly engaged in an activity intending to commit a crime, then the prosecutor is required to prove that the defendant had criminal intent. The legal term is mens rea, which translates to “guilty mind.”

At oral arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Reiser Ripley said there are special-context exceptions to a prosecutor’s duty to prove mens rea.

“Certain statutes are designed to protect minor children from themselves,” Ripley said.

But defense attorney Heather Quick, in an exchange with Judge Steven Grasz, said her client’s conduct would not have been illegal if his companion had been over the age of 18.

QUICK: “When that is the deciding factor as to whether this conduct is criminal or not, the jury needs to make that determination.”

GRASZ: “That’s a credibility determination, isn’t it?”

Quick relied on the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in U.S. v. James Bruguier, in which a South Dakota man was charged with rape after witnesses saw him having sex with a woman who was too drunk to consent.

The high court overturned that rape conviction because the trial judge didn’t instruct the jury that the prosecutor had to prove Bruguier knew the woman was incapacitated.

Quick said in that case, just as in the Moreira-Bravo case, the status of the defendant’s sex partner was the only element making his actions a crime.

In its opinion, the Eighth Circuit said it looked to nine other appellate circuits and found they don’t require a defendant’s knowledge of a victim’s underage status, even though the age is an element of the crime, and so two of the three judges agreed with that conclusion.

Judge Raymond Gruender wrote that the federal statute was created “in the context of a longstanding, near-universal tradition of strict liability as to the victim’s age in child sex crimes.” And so, offenders bear the risk when interacting with potentially underage sex partners.

Judge Grasz dissented. He said the plain language of a statute and well-established statutory construction should not be contradicted by tradition or common law supporting a “special context.”

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007. She Retired from this position in March 2023.