Palm Bay, FL (Florida Today) -- A Florida man says a case of love versus the law has left his daughter, a high school student, facing criminal charges that could land her in prison and require her to register as a sex offender.
Steven Hunt and tens of thousands of online supporters are asking prosecutors to drop the case against Hunt's daughter. Eighteen-year-old Kaitlyn Hunt was arrested in February related to what her father said was a consensual same-sex relationship with another student who was 14.
A Facebook group created to support Kaitlyn asks people to write to their legislators to change laws in order protect high school peers from prosecution in similar cases.
"Kaitlyn was a highly respected student at Florida's Sebastian River High School with good grades and participation in cheerleading, basketball and chorus," Hunt, of Palm Bay, wrote in the petition on Change.org. "She was even voted 'most school spirit.' Now she's been expelled from school and is facing serious felonies - all because she is in love."
Hunt wants prosecutors in Indian River County to drop the two charges filed against his daughter in February. A rainbow-colored "Stop the hate, freeKate" page on the online petition site Change.org had more than 56,500 supporters calling for prosecutors to drop the charges Monday afternoon, and a similar "Free Kate" Facebook group page had more than 30,000 members.
"The law is designed to protect our children, but the law does not serve its purpose when it is applied to consensual behavior between peers," a statement on the Facebook page reads. The case started in February, but has since garnered national attention for what some media portray as a gay rights issue.
In the online petition, Hunt claims his daughter's girlfriend's parents went to police because they blamed Kaitlyn for their child's homosexuality. That doesn't change the case for the Indian River County Sheriff's Office.
"If this was an 18-year-old male and that was a 14-year-old girl, it would have been prosecuted the same way," Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar said during a Monday news conference.
Florida's law says any person who engages in sexual activity with a minor between the ages of 12 and 16 commits the crime lewd and lascivious battery.
"The idea is to protect people in that vulnerable group from people who are older, 18 and above," said Bruce Colton, state attorney for Florida's 19th circuit, which includes Indian River County and other parts of the Treasure Coast. "...The statute specifically says that consent is not a defense." Colton said prosecutors will not drop the charges based on the public petition. He said this case exemplifies the purpose of the current law and added he would not support any effort to make consensual relationships among peers legal.
"There's a big maturity difference between them," he said. "You're talking the difference between a senior in high school and a freshman in high school. That's what the law is designed to protect."
The second-degree felony charges are punishable by up to 15 years in prison following a conviction. Colton said the state offered a plea agreement - of two years house arrest and one year probation - to Hunt on May 1.
Hunt and her legal team have until Friday to take that offer. The victim was not identified because she is a minor. A spokesman for the sheriff's office said he was unaware if the victim had retained legal counsel. Kelley Hunt Smith, Kaitlyn's mother, posted a plea for help on the Facebook support page.
This is how it appeared online: "I need people to stand and fight with me for my daughter's life. Should the girls have made better choices, YES. I agree, but is this criminal, no. Does my daughter deserve to lose her life for 15 years, or 3 years, or to have no life, because of one choice she made in high school, absolutely not!!"
According to an affidavit for Kaitlyn's arrest, Kaitlyn and her girlfriend were both students at the Sebastian high school and started dating in November 2012.
The victim told police they began a sexual relationship before Christmas and performed sexual acts on each other multiple times at the school and at Kaitlyn's home in Sebastian as recently as early January.
The report indicates the victim was 14 and Kaitlyn was 18. Indian River County detectives interviewed the victim and Kaitlyn and conducted a recorded phone call between the two as part of the investigation to develop grounds for an arrest. In the call, Kaitlyn told the girl she loved her.
"Your affiant asked Kaitlyn if she knew it was wrong to have sex with [name redacted] due to [redacted] being 14 years old," the detective wrote in the affidavit. "Kaitlyn stated that she did not think about it because [redacted] acted older."
(Photos of Kaitlyn Hunt; Author: Stephanie Slifer Credit: Facebook/CBS)