Judge examines definition of 'sexual activity'

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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A federal judge in northern Indiana has refused to acquit or order a retrial for a man convicted of using the Internet to expose himself to what he thought was a 13-year-old girl, even though it's unclear whether the man actually committed a crime as defined by federal statute.

In a 15-page order released today in U.S. v. Donald L. Cochran, No. 2:06-CR-161 PS, U.S. District Judge Philip Simon in Hammond denied the motions by defendant Cochran, whose online actions in July 2006 led to his prosecution of coercing and enticement of a minor.

Cochran visited an "Indiana romance" chat room and started talking online with a person identified as a 13-year-old girl; however "Ashley" was actually a detective with the Purdue University Police Department conducting an undercover sting operation to catch child predators online. They communicated seven times during several weeks, and more than once Cochran was accused of exposing himself through a web cam.

At trial, Cochran moved for an acquittal at the close of evidence arguing that his conduct didn't meet the elements of the statute, Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Section 2422. Judge Simon took the matter under advisement and submitted it to a jury, which returned a guilty verdict, but he admits the issue presents "a close call."

"What Donald Cochran did over the Internet last summer was undeniably a bit disturbing," he wrote. "But whether he violated the federal statute with which he was charged is not so simple a question. The statute in question ... is written in a way that only a lawyer could love."

That statute section prohibits people from using the Internet to persuade or entice children to engage in prohibited sexual activity, but doesn't define "sexual activity," Judge Simon wrote, noting the only limitation on the term is that the conduct must amount to a violation of a "criminal offense" which encompasses state law offenses.

In this case, Cochran's underlying criminal offense based on state law is Indiana Code 35-42-4-5c, or "vicarious sexual gratification; fondling in the presence of a minor."

Judge Simon determined the evidence was strong enough to prove the conduct was criminal, especially because Cochran didn't deny any of the factual allegations during trial.

"The more difficult question is whether the acts that form the basis for the commission of the Indiana offense ... amounts to 'any sexual activity' as that term is used in the federal statute," the judge wrote, comparing definitions of terms "sexual act" and "illicit sexual conduct" used repeatedly in various parts of the criminal code. "I presume that Congress meant what it said when it prohibited 'any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense."

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