A Colorado sexting case involving more than 100 teenagers has left local prosecutors with a quandary. Should they prosecute the minors under child pornography laws, which would have lifelong consequences, or charge them with lesser offenses that might not reflect the severity of the crime?
This and other recent sexting cases have sparked concerns that state laws—originally drafted to protect children from exploitation by adults—are out-of-date and ineffective when applied to sexting minors in the smartphone age.
In early November an anonymous student from Canon City High School, a school of 1,000 in a small southern Colorado town, called a state student safety hotline with a tip about the widespread sharing of explicit photos via text message, referred to as sexting. School officials investigated and initially turned over one phone with several hundred photos to police. Some students were reportedly using a password protected app that looks like a calculator to collect and hide nude photos of themselves and fellow students. An unspecified number of students have been suspended, and the high school forfeited its last football game of the season due to ethical questions about the players.
“We’re not out to hang every kid,” said Canon City Police Capt. Jim Cox. “We don’t want the victims to think they did something wrong, but we do want to know what happened.”
Under Colorado law, the possession of an explicit photo of a minor, even a photo shared between two consenting minors, is a felony. A conviction often requires registration as a sex offender. Fremont County District Attorney Tom LeDoux said he takes the implications of that very seriously, and would only file charges if “absolutely necessary.” He is focusing the investigation on whether any adults were involved, whether anyone was coerced into sharing photos, and whether any illegal sexual contact resulted.
“It is possible there will be no criminal charges filed at all,” LeDoux said. Officials estimate the Canon City investigation may take up to 30 days.
Similar cases are raising questions about child pornography laws, and whether sexting minors should face felony charges. Last week, two Long Island 14-year-olds were charged after one of them shot video of the other having sex with a girl and sent it to other teens. The two boys face felony charges, and nearly 20 students at a neighboring school were suspended for viewing, possessing, or sending the video. Last year, courts charged two North Carolina 16-year-olds, a boyfriend and girlfriend, with felony sexual exploitation of a minor for exchanging nude selfies. A judge reduced the charges to misdemeanors after a public outcry.
Donna Rice Hughes, president and CEO of internet safety group Enough is Enough, says this is a good dialogue to have, especially given the epidemic nature of sexting among today’s teens.
“How do we treat the production and distribution of this kind of content among ‘consenting’ youth, and treat it with the seriousness that it should be treated, but possibly set it apart from existing child pornography laws?” she asked. It is important for prosecutors, judges, and juries in sexting cases to look at the particular nuances of cases, Hughes said.
She draws a line between minors exchanging explicit photos privately, and posting or sharing those images online.
“That’s where there is a clear line being crossed,” Hughes said. “If you put something out there, you have to know that you are posting criminal content.”
Nearly 30 percent of teens have sent a naked picture of themselves through text or email, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Texas. The study also found 31 percent of teens reported asking someone for a sext, and more than half (57 percent) said they had been asked to send a sext.
— by Kiley Crossland