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Adults Gone Wild

the interior of a homemade digital clock
Yes, this is a clock. Photo by Andrew Filer.

Science tells us that the human brain matures more slowly than we used to assume, not reaching full maturity until about age 25.

Apparently, there are a lot of 24-year-olds out there who are lying about their age to get jobs as school principals, police officers and prosecutors. How else can we explain the utter lack of judgment some supposedly responsible adults display?

Take the case of Ahmed Mohamed, which made headlines recently and triggered a wave of outrage on social media. If you happened to somehow miss the story, 14-year-old Mohamed brought a homemade electronic clock to his Irving, Texas, high school. When staff mistook the wires and circuitry for a bomb, police escorted Mohamed from the school in handcuffs. Mohamed said that, though he repeatedly asked to speak to his parents, he was not allowed to see them until he was released from a juvenile detention center where he had been questioned.

Even assuming that the English teacher who confiscated Mohamed’s homemade clock is an idiot - because only an idiot could assume that anything consisting of just wires, LEDs and circuit boards, lacking any plastic, powder or liquid that can explode, might be a bomb - the high school has an engineering teacher. That teacher had, in fact, already seen Mohamed’s device and, reportedly, praised it.

Prior to calling the cops, might school officials have consulted that teacher to verify Mohamed’s statement that the project was a clock? Prior to handcuffing Ahmed, might the cops have summoned a member of the bomb squad (a step that would have seemed in order anyway if someone thought there actually might be a threat)? They may have, considering that Mohamed was taken into custody for “possession of a hoax bomb,” according to the Irving Police Department’s statement. But they still saw fit to arrest him, and the school still saw fit to suggest to Mohamed’s parents that he was to blame for violating the school’s code of conduct and to suspend him for three days.

Does anyone in authority have the sense to simply say out loud, “Okay everyone, relax - false alarm?”

Then there is the case of a teenage couple in North Carolina who faced child porn charges - as adults - because they took consensual nude photos of themselves and shared them with one another. A good idea? Probably not, as any parent (or cop, or prosecutor) might have explained. But a crime? Only under a wildly contorted reading of North Carolina law, in which they were simultaneously charged as adults for exploiting minors, namely themselves.

Due to the vagaries of North Carolina law, a 16-year-old is considered an adult for being charged, but to send or receive sexually explicit content, even with a peer, a person must be at least 18. In other words, the teens were perfectly free under North Carolina law to look at their own naked bodies in the mirror, or to look at one another, or even to have consensual sex, since in that state statutory rape involves intercourse between someone older than 18 and someone younger than 16. But according to the warped thinking of the sheriff’s department and the local prosecutor in Fayetteville, they could not have legally taken or possessed the photos they took.

It should go without saying, but it evidently does not: “It’s dysfunctional to be charged with possession of your own image,” as Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin, told The Guardian. And Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, told The Washington Post, “This [case] demonstrates an utter failure to understand the nature of sexual exploitation.”

And even if the conclusion of these legal eagles was remotely correct, it is still astounding that they felt the proper next step was to charge the couple with felonies and eventually extract guilty pleas to misdemeanors, rather than just turn them over to their parents. All this in the name of “saving the kids from themselves,” as Sergeant Sean Swain explained.

Yup, that’s the way to engender respect for the law.

If the North Carolina case sounds familiar, it’s worth noting that it isn’t the first time adult anxiety about teen sexual behavior has led to an absurd outcome. Last year, I wrote about a Virginia case involving a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old, another couple who could legally have sex with one another but not legally exchange sexual images. When the defendant’s attorney criticized the lead detective’s actions in the national media, instead of backing off, the detective sued the attorney for defamation.

I won’t even go into all the bizarre conspiracy theories, which are little more than ravings, about how young Ahmed Mohamed hoped to strike terror into the hearts of upstanding citizens by bringing his non-bomb to school, displaying it to his teacher, never claiming that it was in any way dangerous, and cooperating when the principal pulled him out of class in the company of a police officer. All you need to do is read the comments on any unmoderated website to remember that there are a lot of nut jobs out there.

School principals, law officers and prosecutors are not supposed to think like the nut jobs. They are not supposed to whip out their handcuffs or summon their grand juries when confronted with non-crimes committed by non-criminals, either. There used to be something in this country known as common sense. It may still exist, but we have to wonder if it is fair to describe it as “common” anymore.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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One Response to "Adults Gone Wild"

  • Henry Stimpson
    September 30, 2015 - 11:52 am

    I think this is symptomatic of the Age of Overkill. One more example – today, in my town, and I think it’s universal – when there’s the slightest medical emergency, like someone with a twisted ankle, they send out an ambulance, a big fire truck and police. Seems silly to me, though not as egregious as the examples mentioned above.