Sunday Highlight: Sexting and Your Teen

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The Possible Legal Ramifications of Teen Sexting: What You Should Know to Protect Your Teen

Teenagers today engage with the digital world at an unprecedented level. It has become overwhelmingly common for adolescents to carry or access cell phones. An estimated 78% of teens own cell phones and one-third send more than 3,000 text messages a month.[1]
According to a 2009 study performed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one in five teens admitted to “sexting.” Sexting is the act of taking, sending, or receiving nude images via cell phone, blog, or other form of electronic communication.[2] Minors who send nude images of themselves to other minors may be subject to delinquency proceedings. Teens and young adults who are at least 18 years of age may face more severe penalties than their minor counterparts. These crimes carry severe long-term ramifications for teens if convicted, including but not limited to, terms of incarceration and/or sex offender registration.
Current Ohio law provides little guidance on how the government should handle such offenses. As a result, prosecutors have great discretion in deciding how to charge minors who engage in sexting, including the decision of whether to prosecute at all. Prosecutors may elect to pursue felony charges, some of which carry mandatory sex offender registration requirements. There are a handful of distinct felonies that a prosecutor could charge in response to teen sexting. For example, a prosecutor might charge under Ohio Revised Code 2907.322, “Pandering Sexually Oriented Matter Involving a Minor,” a felony of the fourth degree, or Ohio Revised Code 2907.323, “Illegal Use of Minor in Nudity Oriented Material or Performance.” The degree of the latter charge depends on whether the person sends material (second degree), consents to photographing (fourth degree), or possesses or views the material (fifth degree). Prosecutors may also choose to prosecute under Ohio Revised Code 2907.321, “Pandering obscenity involving a minor,” which may result in a second- or fourth-degree felony depending on the nature and content of the images.
In addition to Ohio’s registration requirements, the Federal Adam Walsh Act may require teens who send, receive, or share such photos register as sex offenders. The Act requires teens to register with law enforcement for decades, or even their entire life in some circumstances, after completion of their sentence. If the conviction falls under the Second or Third Tier of sex offender registration crimes, then the teens will be subjected to mandatory community notification which is accessible on the Internet.
In some cases, defense attorneys may be able to convince prosecutors to reduce such charges to misdemeanors that do not require registration or dismiss the charges or impose community service. Teen sexting cases where the accused is a minor are handled by juvenile court judges, who exercise greater discretion in sentencing. Thus, it is critical that youths receive competent representation to get the best outcome possible if and when these circumstances arise.
These laws are meant to protect children from adults who seek to take advantage of them. However, teenagers who engage in consensual sexual exploration with other teens may be subject to these laws, even for sending their own image. As a result, victims of these crimes may be subject to criminal prosecution as well. It’s important to have a conversation with your teen if he or she carries a cell phone or has internet access. Be sure to warn them of the potential legal ramifications of taking, sending, or receiving nude images of themselves or others. Consult with legal counsel should your teen be confronted by law enforcement so your child can make an informed decision regarding their future.

[1] Sexting Among Teenagers in the United States: A Retrospective Analysis for Identifying Motivating Factors, Potential Targets, and the Role of a Capable Guardian, Kathy Martinez-Prather and Donna M. Vandiver, International Journal of Cyber Criminology, Vol. 8, Issue 1, Jan.-June 2014.

[2] http://www.acluohio.org/assets/issues/JuvenileJustice/SextingPositionSheet.pdf

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