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Teen Sexting: What are the Legal Consequences?

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With the widespread use of cellphones emerging in the late 1990s, the last few generations have been the first to have their every move documented for public consumption. Since then, cellphones have been ever present at many important events: proms, graduations, college orientation, and for first relationships. Still, within the last decade or so, cell phones changed from portable phones to portable computers with cameras attached, giving people the ability to take, edit, and share photos instantaneously. This ability has led to an increase in something known as “sexting,” defined as “sending nude, sexual or indecent photos (or ‘selfies’) using a computer, mobile phone or other mobile device.” In some cases, it can also include written messages or even videos.

Some states have adopted laws that have severe penalties aimed at teenagers who send, receive, or save such photos. These laws are not as severe as if they were legal adults possessing photos of an underage teen, but they are still serious consequences of which to be aware.


Dawn of a New Legal Era

Sexting laws are a relatively new concept, so that’s why they are somewhat murky to most Americans. Since 2009, many states have adopted teen sexting laws, and each year more states consider bills on the issue. States that already have laws include: Wyoming, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Indiana. Several other states are also considering introducing sexting laws through their legislatures. Most states focus on teen sexting, though there are a few that also legislate other aspects of the activity. As teen sexting spreads and becomes a worry among parents, it’s probable that these laws will be adopted on a wider scale. That doesn’t mean that it is entirely legal in those states without sexting laws, however. In the states without any sexting laws, teens who sext may still see consequences as a result of the pre-existing laws that target child pornography.


What are states doing about teen sexting?

There are some states that have adopted laws specifically for sexting. These laws have explicitly targeted the images sent among teenagers. For example, Connecticut’s sexting law targets teens who create, save, or spread photos of themselves or others.

Here’s an example of how Pennsylvania approaches sexting, as it is illegal for teens ages 12-17 to posses the naked photo of another person in the same age range. According to a Criminal Defense Lawyer resource page:

For example, both a teen who sends a photo of a nude classmate and one who receives the photo could be prosecuted under Pennsylvania law. Teen sexting is punished more severely if the defendant takes or shares a nude photo of another teen without the teen’s permission, and in order to harass that person or cause him or her emotional distress. For example, a boy who shares nude photos of his ex-girlfriend after they break up could be charged with a more serious crime. Pennsylvania’s teen sexting law does not apply to images taken or distributed for commercial purposes, or images of sexual intercourse, penetration, or masturbation, or any other hardcore sexual images.

State laws differ significantly, however, depending on things like ages of majority and previous cases. Louisiana won’t allow anyone under 17 to send or keep pictures. Texas is one of the states that makes some allowances: if the minor sexts another minor, it’s not considered a crime, as long as the recipient’s age is within two years of the sender and the exchange is consensual.

For more information on your state, visit Mobile Safeguard’s Comprehensive list.

What do you do if someone sends this type of message to you?

Teen sexting laws prohibit both sending and receiving explicit images, which can be quite a gray area for some people, as well as some courts. How can you stop someone from sending you a photo? There’s a definite difference between requesting a picture and simply receiving one from another teen. The difference also comes from what you do when you get that picture.

Because of the grayness and the ability for sabotage, sexting laws typically prohibit “receiving and keeping” any explicit images. This means that if a teen or adult receives an image from a teen, the receiver must delete the message immediately in order to avoid legal trouble. To protect oneself, it would also be a good idea for the recipient to send a message stating that the image is not wanted or requested.


Federal Law and Sexting

Depending on the circumstances of the images in question, sexting may also be a crime under federal law.

According to Criminal Defense Lawyer:

Depending on the circumstances, sexting may also be a crime under federal law.

The Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act of 2003 makes it illegal to produce, distribute, receive, or possess with intent to distribute any obscene visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Knowing possession of such material—without intent to distribute—is also a crime under the PROTECT Act. (18 U.S.C. § 1466A(a)(1).)

Federal law also criminalizes causing a minor to take part in sexually explicit conduct in order to visually depict that conduct. Parents who allow this behaviorcan also be prosecuted. (18 U.S.C. § 2251.)

That doesn’t mean that we’ll likely see federal prosecution of juveniles for sexting. The Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act (FJDA) generally posits that, where possible, juvenile cases should remain in state courts.


What happens in states that don’t have sexting laws?

For those states that do not specifically legislate against sexting, the act is usually covered under child pornography laws. This includes creating, possessing, or distributing the photos of anyone underage. This means that the child who takes the picture can be in legal trouble. Many people question the punishment for these young children, especially when they may have been coerced into sending the photos. There has been much debate about what the penalties should be for teenagers who send those photos. Some think they should not face the same penalties as those who are over 18, especially because it can impact everything from college choices to potential careers and living situations. Those who argue against this type of treatment want some of the lesser penalties listed below for teens who are caught sexting.


What are the possible penalties for sexting?

The penalties for teen sexting involve a lot of red tape, juvenile and adult courts, and also include various criminal laws. Overall there is a lot of coordination required anytime there are juveniles in the justice system, which is why some states have specific laws against sexting. Usually, it takes a contentious case to prompt the creation of a specific law.

Juveniles

When a juvenile commits a criminal offense through sexting, that offense is typically handled by the juvenile court system. Juvenile courts have wider discretion in the kinds of penalties they impose. Some of the penalties could include a warning, fines, having to serve community service, completing counseling, probation, or even a sentence to a juvenile facility.

Adults

If the person is 18 or older, he or she will be charged as an adult and could face incarceration, fines, or being entered onto the sex offender registry.


Conclusion

What many consider to be fun and harmless flirting online or over the phone can actually become a severe crime with consequences for both parties involved. It’s best to know where your state stands on the issue and to be smart about it. Sending pictures or messages via your phone opens up the doors for a world of trouble and heartache.


 Resources

 Primary

Connecticut State Police: Connecticut Sexting and Teens

National Criminal Justice Reference Service: Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act

Additional

Criminal Defense Lawyer: Teen Sexting in Pennsylvania

Daily Mail: Parents of ‘Sexting’ Teenagers Can Now Be Punished in Texas

Aggressive Criminal Defense: Sexting Laws and Legal Information

Washington Post: Stop Demonizing Teen Sexting. In Most Cases it is Completely Harmless

CNN: Chances Are Your Teen Has Sexted

 Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to credit select information to Criminal Defense Lawyer. 

Noel Diem
Law Street contributor Noel Diem is an editor and aspiring author based in Reading, Pennsylvania. She is an alum of Albright College where she studied English and Secondary Education. In her spare time she enjoys traveling, theater, fashion, and literature. Contact Noel at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.

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