Sean Penny acknowledges that having sex with a minor during the summer of 2001 was a mistake.
However, he contends the act of consensual sex, over which he was arrested then, did not warrant his expulsion last June from the University of Miami.
A recent appeals court ruling, which found the Florida Sexual Predators Act unconstitutional, breathes life into Penny’s argument that he should not be subjected to a decade of alienation and scrutiny over an offense for which he was never convicted.
“This was a case of a high school senior having sex with a freshman,” said Penny, 20, during a recent interview. “It happens every day.”
However, University officials rejected that notion.
They expelled Penny, a former music theory and composition major and half-scholarship recipient, arguing that, as a registered sexual offender in the state of Florida, he posed a threat to the University community.
The ordeal began on the internet in June 2001. Bored in his parents’ house in Ocala, Florida, Penny, then 18, said he logged on to a gay website and struck up a conversation with the only other person in the Ocala chat room, a 14-year-old boy.
After swapping messages for a few hours, the two decided to meet at 3 a.m. Penny snuck out in his parents’ brown Pontiac Bonneville and drove a couple of miles to an address where he had agreed to meet the minor.
The boy, from Illinois, was a high school freshman in Florida for the summer visiting his aunt.
They drove around for about 20 minutes, looking for a deserted place to park. Penny pulled over and turned off the engine. They kissed and then engaged in sex, until the red and blue lights of an approaching police car interrupted them.
Hastily, they reached for their clothes as a trooper approached the Pontiac, pointing a flashlight toward their half-naked bodies.
Todd Spicher, Marion County Sheriff, tapped on one of the rear windows of the vehicle and asked Penny and the minor to get out of the car. He interviewed them separately, taking the juvenile’s statement first.
Then he took Penny aside and asked him for his side of the story.
Penny told the sheriff that he had had oral and anal sex with the juvenile. The sheriff then confiscated four unopened condoms and an open bottle of Astro Glide lubricant, read Penny his Miranda rights and drove him to county jail.
Penny was arrested on two counts of sexual battery on a child. Under Florida law, it is illegal for an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old to have sex, regardless of whether it is consensual.
Penny started classes at UM in August 2001, trying to put behind him the pain and embarrassment the ordeal had caused him and his parents. His first few months in school were rocky.
He often felt depressed, which hurt his academic performance. In November 2001, his roommate, Chad Meredith, drowned in Lake Osceola. By the end of the semester, Penny’s scholarship was in jeopardy due to his poor grades.
The next semester, he sought counseling at the University. His grades improved; so did his mood. His scholarship remained safe and his day in court was approaching.
In April 2002, Penny accepted a plea bargain from the state attorney’s office in Marion County and pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery on a minor. As part of the plea bargain, the judge withheld adjudication. That meant he was never technically convicted of a crime. However, under the Florida Sexual Predators Act, a guilty plea is sufficient to put an individual on the sexual predators’ online registry.
His mug-shot and charges will remain on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement online database until April 2012, when Penny can legally ask a judge to consider removing him from the registry.
As a sexual offender, Penny must also submit monthly reports to his probation officer in Miami. By law, probation officers are required to notify university officials that one of their students is a sexual offender.
It is unclear whether that is how University officials learned that Penny was a registered sex offender last spring.
Initially, they asked him to move off campus.
“Because of your past actions,” Robert Redick, director of Residence Halls, wrote to Penny in a letter dated June 10, 2002, “I have concluded your continued residence in University of Miami student housing would not be in the best interests of other students at the University.”
He gave Penny four days to move out.
Penny appealed the decision and submitted to UM officials a letter from one of his court-appointed counselors. In the letter, dated June 19, 2002, Dr. Edward Sczechowicz, a clinical psychologist at the Alliance for Psychological Services in Miami, stated that Penny did not pose a threat to the “health or safety of anyone at the University of Miami campus.”
The following week Penny was expelled.
“This decision was made after reviewing the clear scope and intent of the [Florida’s Sexual Predators Act] and with due regards to the best interests of the University community,” William Sandler, dean of students, wrote in a letter dated June 24, 2002.
Sczechowicz’s findings, as expressed in his letter to UM officials, “[run]contrary to legislative findings and purpose of the Florida Sexual Predator’s Act,” Sandler wrote.
Sandler also informed Penny that University officials had deemed it necessary to issue him a trespass warning.
Sandler declined to be interviewed for this story, replying via e-mail: “I’m sorry but I cannot comment on action taken against a current or former student.”
Penny moved into a Coral Gables apartment soon after his expulsion from UM. Coral Gables notifies neighbors when a registered sexual offender moves to the city, and a few weeks into his new lease, his landlord evicted him.
In July 2002, Penny made a written appeal to UM’s Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs seeking readmission. Eric Isicoff, an attorney at Isicoff, Ragatz & Koenigsberg, responded to his appeal on July 26, 2002, on behalf of the University.
Isicoff informed him that the University would not consider his appeal for readmission. Quoting from the state’s Sexual Predators Act, Iscoff wrote, “The Legislature finds that sexual offenders, especially those who have committed their offenses against minors, often pose a high risk of engaging in sexual offenses even after being released from incarceration or commitment.”
Penny applied to Florida International University [FIU]. He submitted a two-page dossier explaining the intricacies of his case. FIU officials rejected his application for admission in August of 2002.
Currently, Penny is enrolled in Miami-Dade Community College [MDCC] and lives in an apartment outside of Coral Gables.
Penny said that recent efforts to explain the intricacies of his situation to the University have been futile. He added that he hopes that by going public about his case – while exposing what he perceives to be a flawed law that that fails to distinguish between dangerous and non-dangerous sexual offenders – University officials might consider readmitting him.
“Sean is not a high risk,” Sczechowicz said. “I would challenge anyone in the field to evaluate Sean.”
Last January, a Florida appeals court ruled that the state’s Sexual Predators Act is unconstitutional because it fails to provide minimal procedural process. It allows for people like Penny to be branded as sexual predators even though their guilt and the level of threat they pose on their community was never established by a judge or jury.
Sczechowicz, who describes himself as “very conservative” when it comes to sentencing sexual predators, reserves his harshest criticism for the manner in which UM officials handled Penny’s case.
“Rather than have a knee-jerk reaction, as professionals it is inherent upon us to look upon the unique characteristics of each case. . . to consult with the experts and do more than pay lip service to the concept of rehabilitation,” said Sczechowicz, who earned his masters degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from UM.
“The University trains individuals to heal people who have problems. It is hypocritical to train their students to do this and not acknowledge that it should be done,” Sczechowicz said.
Penny and Sczechowicz said they believe University officials chose to expel Penny not because they deemed him dangerous to the University community, but because having a sexual offender on campus would have made them liable.
“If you had wanted to throw me out because you worried about the image and integrity of the University being tarnished or of the University being sued, which is in reality the case, you should have just done so on those grounds,” Penny wrote in a recent letter to UM President Donna E. Shalala. “You needed a reason, however, so you tarnished my reputation and my integrity by quoting an unjust law and pushing me out the door. . . I wish you could understand the impact such an arbitrary decision has had on my life.”
Ernesto Londono can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.