Poorly worded law would make it illegal to change your baby’s diaper in Arizona
Word choice is everything, even more so when it comes to legal writing that could potentially put people in jail. The importance of specific language is exemplified in a recent Supreme Court of the State of Arizona ruling that classifies any act that involves “intentionally or knowingly” touching the private parts of a child under 15 as child molestation, which would potentially criminalize changing diapers. Given the rampancy of abuse against children, particularly sexual abuse, at first glance this ruling sounds wise and overdue. However, due to overgeneralized wording, the ruling could apply to common and non-abusive situations, such as changing a baby’s diaper, dressing a child, or taking a child for a check-up at the doctor’s office.
Ironically, the ruling was made in reaction to misplaced semantics coming from a man convicted of child molestation. During his trial, the man appealed to the court under claims that solitary evidence that he was “touching” a child didn’t indicate criminal sexual intent. In response, the court ruled that the updated definition of potentially prosecuted child molestation would, “therefore require no mental state beyond a person’s intentionally or knowingly touching a child’s ‘private parts,'” because legally proving sexual intent is very difficult to do even with proof of inappropriate contact.
The intent of the wording change within the ruling is good: this was a ruling made in the explicit effort to enable easier justice for children who have been abused. However, due to the literal application of the word as law, there is a reasonable fear that touching the private parts of children under 15 technically applies to diaper changing and other common parenting activities. So, a parent could potentially be prosecuted and forced to defend themselves in court against accusations of sexual intent. This inspires the natural question: why didn’t the ruling include a carefully written clause for doctor appointments and diaper changes?
In reality, during the ruling itself, the court took care to note that “prosecutors are unlikely to charge parents, physicians, and the like when the evidence demonstrates the presence of an affirmative defense,” as reported by Cosmopolitan. Unfortunately, “unlikely” still doesn’t preclude the possibility of parents facing criminal charges, which is a hugely important delineation. If the ruling were written with more detail this would not be a concern.
However, despite the fear that parents will be prosecuted for changing diapers, the fact that the court is flipping the onus of proof of intention back onto the accused in cases of alleged sexual abuse is a hugely positive step for the protection of children.