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Idaho court rules for parental rights

BOISE - An Idaho court went too far when it imposed a no-contact order on an offender that banned him from contacting any minor, including his own two young children, the Idaho Court of Appeals has ruled.

The offender, Brian C. Cobler, was convicted of engaging in a three-month sexual relationship with an unrelated 17-year-old girl that included drug use; his wife also was arrested in the crime. Cobler contended that the no-contact order - which banned letters, phone calls, e-mails, and approaching within 100 feet of any minor, forever - violated his fundamental right to parent his children.

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals agreed. “There was no indication in the psychosexual evaluation that Cobler would prey upon any of his children, nor that communication with their father would be harmful to them,” the court wrote in a decision by Chief Judge Sergio Gutierrez, issued last week. “Without such a determination, denying Cobler all parental rights oversteps the authority of the state.”

The case is the first time an Idaho court has ruled on whether such no-contact orders violate a “fundamental right to parent.” So with no Idaho precedents, the high court turned to the notorious Washington case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a 34-year-old sixth-grade teacher who was convicted of child rape after she became pregnant by a 13-year-old student; the two eventually had another baby and married after Letourneau served a seven-year prison term and the former student turned 21.

In a 2000 Washington case involving Letourneau, the court ruled that the former teacher could have contact with her children, including four from a previous marriage, because she posed no danger to the youngsters. “The state failed to demonstrate that prohibiting Letourneau from unsupervised in-person contact with her biological children … is reasonably necessary to protect those children from the harm of sexual molestation by their mother,” the Washington court found.

Idaho’s Court of Appeals wrote, “We consider the standard adopted in Washington persuasive.” So if a no-contact order is issued that limits a fundamental right - including the right to parent one’s children - it must be “reasonably necessary to accomplish the essential needs of the state.”

In Cobler’s case, the court ruled, it wasn’t. “Cobler is described as an opportunist with a disturbing pattern of involvement with older teenage girls,” the court wrote. “There is nothing in the record describing Cobler as a pedophile.”

He and his wife had two children, a boy and a girl, under age 6 at the time of their 2006 arrest in the case. Cobler also has another daughter from a previous marriage who was 15 at the time, and lives with her mother in another state.

Cobler received a 10-year prison term with two years fixed; he remains incarcerated. The Court of Appeals remanded his case back to Idaho’s 4th District Court in Boise for a hearing on modifications to the no-contact order.

Molley Huskey, state appellate public defender for Idaho, said such no-contact orders are “fairly typical” in sex-offense cases in Idaho. “Sometimes the no-contact order applies to all minors and sometimes it applies to the defendant’s children, regardless of whether they were the alleged victims,” she said.

She added, “Because it’s an issue of first impression in Idaho, we didn’t have any case law on it.”

Because of the precedent-setting nature of the case, the state could petition to have it heard again by the Idaho Supreme Court. Bob Cooper, spokesman for the Idaho Attorney General’s office, said no decision has yet been made; the deadline for such a petition is Jan. 13. “We’re reviewing the Court of Appeals decision at this point,” Cooper said.


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