Let’s talk about Bedford County, Pennsylvania’s former District Attorney, William Higgins, Jr. On August the 17th, 2018, Higgins was sentenced after being charged with using his power as a District Attorney to coerce female defendants accused of drug offenses into sex acts. At least, that’s how the news media repeatedly framed it. There’s just one problem with that script. Prisoners and those accused of a crime cannot legally consent to sex with any law enforcement officer, District Attorney, or other officer of the court. So, let’s just call this what it really was – what the court and news media refuse to call it: Rape.
It’s not as if the court is unfamiliar with the word or unaware of its definition. After all, courts routinely tout the legal principle that certain classes of people cannot consent to sex under any circumstances – minors under the legal age of consent, people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, people who are incapacitated while unconscious or sleeping, people who have significant mental illness, and yes, people who are in the government’s custody.
So, for raping these women, former District Attorney Higgins received the following sentence: $9,700 in fines, eight years of probation, 1125 hours of community service, 120 days of house arrest, and mandated counseling. That’s right… not a single day of jail or prison time, and no sex offender registry!
One might be tempted to think that perhaps he received this judicial slap on the wrist because his offense was a singularly minor infraction of the law. But, in fact, Higgins faced 31 charges which included not only the sexual assaults, but obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, reckless endangerment, giving misleading testimony, and concealing or destroying evidence.
Perhaps his sentencing good fortune was the result of the fact that Higgins is just a really, really nice guy who is simply misunderstood? After all, Steven Passarello – Higgins’ defense attorney – extolled his ostensible altruism thusly: “To his credit he decided he did not want to put his family or the county of Bedford through a media circus trial.” And as everyone knows, nothing says “nice guy” like wanting to spare the county a media circus.
Far more likely is the probability that the District Attorney’s office simply couldn’t stomach the prospect of the wall-to-wall media scrutiny that such attention would bring to their operations. They were apparently willing to do just about anything to avoid that kind of scrutiny and the inevitable calls for oversight and accountability that would surely result. So, they made a deal. It was one hell of a good deal for Higgins by any conceivable measure. Higgins would pay a small fine, do some community service, and spend some time in “home confinement.” But he would be spared the indignity and substantial risk of serving any jail time, and there would be no sex offender registration. In return, Higgins would retreat from the limelight, keep his mouth shut, and crawl back into obscurity like the cockroach that he is. It’s a win-win.
This case is the perfect example of how there are two distinctly different kinds of justice in America. There’s the kind of justice you get when you are wealthy, well-connected, and a potential embarrassment to officials because know where all the “skeletons” are buried. And then there’s the injustice you are subject to when you aren’t wealthy, aren’t well-connected, and wield no political clout at all. The average citizen who is charged with one – one! – misdemeanor sexual offense typically serves significant jail time and is placed on the sex offender registry. Higgins, with 31 charges against him, received not even a taste of either.
That brings us to another major, glaring facet of this case that most have missed. Time and again, the appellate courts have ruled that the sex offender registry is not punishment. In Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Alaska’s sex-offender registration statute, opining that the registry was administrative, not punitive, and was therefore not an ex post facto law. But, if the sex offender registry requirement truly isn’t punishment, then why was Higgins not required to register?
The answer, obviously, is because Higgins and his attorney both knew full well that sex offender registration would be the worst possible consequence to be faced at any sentencing hearing. Therefore, they did what any reasonable defendant would do under the circumstances, if they had the same kind of dirt on the courts that Higgins had. They made sex offender registration a non-negotiable item in their bargaining discussions.
Higgins, the former Bedford County PA District Attorney knows full well that not only is the sex offender registry a punishment, it is an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment of the worst kind. The current Bedford DA, Lesley Childers-Potts, knows it, as does Judge Thomas Ling, who accepted Higgins’ plea agreement. Every registrant in America knows, without a doubt, that the sex offender registry – the so-called “civil death penalty” – is punishment.
Why doesn’t the U.S. Supreme Court know it?
Yes the Registry is continued punishment for the ex offender and his entire family. It’s wrong and other states are waking up to the fact it is truly unconstitutional thru their State Supreme Courts. It’s time to abolish Tge Registry , not cost effective, gives false sense of security to the public
I sent the following eMail to the Bedford County D.A.:
I am writing to respectfully express my disappointment and outrage over the way the case involving former Bedford County District Attorney William Higgins, Jr. was mishandled. Even the court was complicit in this travesty of justice. It seems that those who enforce the law and/or prosecute offenders are somehow able to set themselves above the very laws they swore to uphold. This should never be accepted. This case also screams WOMEN ACCUSED OF CRIMES AREN’T WORTH THE SAME LEVEL OF PROTECTION FROM SEXUAL EXPLOITATION AS THE ORDINARY CITIZEN.
Even the media was a part of this travesty. “He was accused of using his powers as District Attorney to ‘help’ female drug dealers in exchange for sexual favors” as WTAJ puts it. Even the media did not call his crimes against these women rape. How can anyone with a scintilla of honesty not call this rape?
This man used his position of immense authority to coerce female defendants into sexual activity. It is a well-known legal principle that criminal defendants, prisoners, and the like cannot give consent to sexual activity with a D.A. or jail/prison officials. Any sexual activity of this kind is RAPE. This is the very definition of RAPE. RAPE is a violent sexual crime that demands registration (and in many states life-long post-confinement supervision and 24/7 G.P.S. tracking). How can a rape be any more coercive than the one raping you having the power of the criminal prosecution process to wield as a weapon? I can’t think of a more forcible compulsion that the D.A. using his immense prosecutorial prerogatives as a weapon to force compliance from females awaiting criminal prosecution.
This is Pennsylvania’s definition of RAPE:
A person commits a felony of the first degree when the person engages in sexual intercourse with a complainant:
1. By forcible compulsion.
2. By threat of forcible compulsion that would prevent resistance by a person of reasonable resolution.
3. Who is unconscious or where the person knows that the complainant is unaware that the sexual intercourse is occurring.
4. Where the person has substantially impaired the complainant’s power to appraise or control his or her conduct by administering or employing, without the knowledge of the complainant, drugs, intoxicants or other means for the purpose of preventing resistance.
5. Who suffers from a mental disability which renders the complainant incapable of consent.
Not only did he commit the crime of rape repeatedly, but he also committed the following: obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, reckless endangerment, giving misleading testimony, and concealing or destroying evidence. In all Mr. Higgins faced no less than 31 charges. These are the actions of an extremely dangerous predatory sexual offender and your office and the Court gave this man a free pass. Community service, 6 months’ house arrest and mandated counseling are a joke! This man should be serving decades in prison and life on the S.O.R. There’s no plausible explanation other than this being a case of the “good ol’ boy” system. How is this MONSTER any different from the other rapists your office has aggressively prosecuted and sent to prison over the years? Why is he so special that he doesn’t even have to register?
It is appalling that Mr. Higgins was allowed to plead out to non-sexual offenses and avoid being labeled a rapist and registered as a violent/predatory sex offender. This is undeniably what would have been done with any private citizen. It’s sickening that this sort of double standard exists. Preserving the dignity and integrity of the District Attorney’s office is no excuse to give a rapist a free pass that’s not available to any others convicted of that same sort of offense. In my opinion, either every rapist goes to prison for a long time and has to register or none at all. Official title, financial status, socio-political connections all should be irrelevant.
The actions of the D.A.’s office and Judge Thomas Ling show by their actions they KNOW the registry is a civil death penalty and a wholly punitive measure.
I’m a little late to this article but it has infuriated me. A 7 yr old child can be put on the punitive, nazi like regime of a registration intended to inflict torture. But this is a truly dangerous man and he escapes it, because he was helping them? The #metoo movement was started for women like this, unfortunately it has been hijacked by wealthy white women to abuse it for their own political career’s and revenge.