Arizona’s ‘child grooming’ law inspired by a girl’s own story

PHOENIX (AZ Family) — Gov. Katie Hobbs signed a new bill designed to make it easier to prosecute suspected child sexual predators before they physically abuse a victim.

House Bill 2310 establishes a new criminal offense called “child enticement,” which allows prosecutors to file felony charges against an adult who requests nude photographs of a child or takes steps “to further” the sexual abuse of a minor.

The measure passed the Arizona House of Representatives last week by a vote of 39-19, overcoming criticism from some groups like the ACLU, which argued the bill’s language was too broad and could criminalize innocent behavior. .

Gov. Katie Hobbs signed the bill into law on Friday, something one Valley family had been eagerly awaiting.

“My ultimate goal is for no one else to go through what I went through,” said the teen whose experience became the driving force behind the legislation. State lawmakers gave the teen a prolonged applause from the House floor before Wednesday’s final vote.

The criminal case against the now-fired high school basketball coach and Suns superfan known as “Mr. ORNG” has drawn attention to the concept of “grooming,” the act of inducing a child to engage in sexual behavior. However, the push to change Arizona’s sex crimes law this session began with an incident in a different part of the Valley – and a different high school coach.

“Anne” (a pseudonym) was a 14-year-old freshman on the women’s softball team when she said her coach began texting her personal details about her life, including her first sexual experiences.

She said the coach, a man in his 30s who was also a teacher, insisted she visit his classroom alone, where they spent long periods on his couch.

“There was a moment when we were sitting on the couch, next to each other. “His hand was going up the bottom of my shorts and up my back,” Anne said. “However, he never took another step.”

The principal eventually discovered them alone in a locked classroom, prompting Anne’s family to go to the police.

According to a police report, detectives searched the coach’s cell phone and found messages where he professed his love for the 14-year-old girl and made several references to wanting to hug her. “My job and softball mean absolutely nothing compared to you to me. That’s why I would risk everything to be with you,” the coach texted, according to the report.

In another case, the report quotes the coach writing: “I wish I could give you a hug right now. Or a bigger couch so we can do it. Put.”

The coach also urged the teen to delete her text messages “so they don’t find out,” according to the document.

The police department that handled the case recommended felony charges against the coach, but the Maricopa County Prosecutor’s Office ultimately declined to prosecute him, citing “burden of proof” issues.

“The police officer who investigated your daughter’s case said this was the worst case of harassment he had seen in his 35-year career, and yet there was nothing they could do?” I asked Anne’s mother.

“Correct,” she replied. “When you see something done to your child, there is really nothing worse. And when you can’t get the justice they deserve, it’s a horrible feeling as a parent.”

Anne’s case has an important distinction from the ongoing prosecution of Mr. ORNG, whose real name is Patrick Battillo. In Battillo’s case, prosecutors allege he requested sexually explicit photographs and videos. Battillo has pleaded not guilty.

Anne’s case lacked such explicit requests. Although Anne told police that her trainer touched her buttocks and thighs, prosecutors declined to file sexual assault charges. According to the family, prosecutors explained that they can only file sexual assault charges when a person touches the victim’s crotch or chest. Additionally, prosecutors said they could not file harassment charges because Anne did not object.

That explanation worries Anne’s mother. “The only way to stop him is if he actually completes the act. By the grace of God, he didn’t get that far. But a lot of damage has been done.”

Determined to protect other children, the family contacted state Rep. Travis Grantham, who introduced a bill defining grooming as a criminal offense. Grantham told a committee that the bill was designed to fill gaps in existing law that make it difficult to prosecute predators who seek to establish an inappropriate sexual relationship but have not yet engaged in criminal physical contact.

When the bill was first heard by the House Judiciary Committee in January, it met resistance from the ACLU and some liberal groups. Critics argued that the bill could criminalize teachers and other innocent acts aimed at educating teenagers about sexual health. They also claimed that the term “grooming” itself had become an anti-LGBTQ+ slur.

VIDEO: Watch the first hearing on HB 2310 below:

In response, Grantham amended the bill to replace the word “grooming” with “child enticement.” She also added language to clarify that the measure could not be used to prosecute adults who display images for legitimate sex education. The bill protects activities with “significant literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

The new measure makes it a crime to take any measure to facilitate the sexual abuse of a minor, with harsher penalties if the adult is in a “position of trust.” Anne’s family emphasizes that the bill does not refer just to teachers or coaches but to any adult who interacts with children.

Shortly before Wednesday’s final vote, Grantham gestured toward the gallery above the House chamber.

“We recognize and appreciate the victim who came forward here,” Grantham said. “Let’s give her a round of applause for her strength and bravery,” prompting applause.

“Hopefully it can help other people going through something similar like this,” Anne said.

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