Howell agreed to a plea deal that dropped the molestation charge to child abuse. Her time in prison will be followed by eight years and six months of probation.
A Palm Coast woman charged with molesting a runaway teenage girl when the woman was 18 and the teen was 14 has agreed to a plea deal.
The deal accepted by Circuit Judge Dennis Craig during a Jan. 22 hearing will allow Maria Howell, now 20, to spend 18 months in prison rather than the 15 years she would have faced otherwise. Under the terms of the deal, the child molestation charge that would have carried a potential 15-year-sentence was dropped to child abuse.
Howell pleaded no contest to the abuse charge.
Howell had met the 14-year-old victim on social media, taken the girl for a "date" at Epic Theatres in Palm Coast and then driven with her to Port St. Lucie, where local police officers found Howell and the teen together June 11, 2016, shortly after the teen's parents had reported her missing, according to a Flagler County Sheriff's Office arrest affidavit. Both Howell and the teen told deputies that Howell had engaged in sexual activity with the victim.
By the time Howell was arrested Jan. 7, 2017, in connection with the molestation case, she was on probation for other charges: On Aug. 24, 2016, she kicked a law enforcement officer while resisting arrest on a disorderly intoxication charge. In that case, she was again found in the company of an underage female runaway.
And that wasn't the first such instance: in November 2015, Howell had been charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after she was found to have been in the company of a 15-year-old girl who'd gone missing from home for two days.
After Howell's 18 months in state prison, she'll spend 3.5 years on probation in connection with the child abuse charge and another five years on probation in connection with the battery on a law enforcement officer charge.
The acceptance of the plea deal was a change of course for Craig, who, during a previous hearing, had rejected an earlier proposed plea deal that did not include prison time for Howell. After the defense and the prosecution worked out the current plea deal with 18 months worth of prison time, Craig asked that the victim's mother provide her opinion of the deal, and, at the time, the mother opposed it. The case was set for trial.
But on the morning of Jan. 22, the victim's mother told Craig she'd changed her mind after the prosecution spoke with her and explained all of the terms of the plea deal.
Howell will not be required to register as a sex offender after her release from prison, but she will be required to comply with standard sex offender probation requirements after her release: She won't be allowed to work or volunteer with kids, won't be allowed to live within 1,000 feet of a school or other place where children gather and will be required to undergo psychosexual evaluations.