What Happened in Maine v. Legassie
In late 2013, 21-year-old Andrew Legassie sent sexually-explicit images over Facebook to a handful of girls, who were then between the ages of 14 and 17. Legassie was arrested and charged for numerous crimes, including sexual exploitation of a minor. However, despite the fact that there was never any physical presence, Legassie was also arrested and charged for five counts of indecent conduct.
Legassie confessed to sending the images of himself to the underage girls, and was convicted on all charges.
Court Rules Indecent Conduct Requires Presence
The case of Maine v. Legassie made it to the Maine Supreme Court, where the judges there determined that the statute for indecent conduct cannot be violated when all of the conduct happened online and there was no physical presence.
Importantly, the statute in question, 17-A M.R.S. §854, doesn't specify whether the suspect had to be physically present to violate the law. Instead, it merely required that “the actor exposes the actor's genitals with the intent that the actor be seen.” Noting that a reasonable reading of the statute could either convict or acquit Legassie, the court deemed it ambiguous and looked past the plain language of the law for other clues on what it meant.
One place they looked was to how indecent conduct statutes were used, in the past. This revealed a long history of cases that required physical presence. It also revealed the fact that, before 1995, Maine's indecent conduct statute was titled “public indecency,” and that, both before and after it changed to “indecent conduct,” it focused on prohibiting in-person and unwanted exposures.
The court also found that there was another statute, 17 M.R.S. §2911, which more closely applied to cases where an adult was giving obscene photographs to minors. The fact that there was a law much more on point was an indication that the indecent conduct statute was not meant to apply to Legassie's conduct.
Case Highlights Roles of Courts and Legislatures in America
Some people might be in shock over the outcome of Maine v. Legassie. If he confessed to “sexting” underage girls, the court should convict him, right?
Wrong. Courts exist in the U.S. to interpret the written laws that the legislature creates, not make decisions based on the conscience of the judges. If judges were free to convict or acquit someone based on their personal beliefs, every case would depend on which judge was hearing it.
In Maine v. Legassie, the law that the Maine Legislature had written, and which the prosecutors had decided to pursue in court, did not prohibit what Mr. Legassie had done. The decision to acquit him of the charges he was facing under the indecent conduct law was the correct decision.