‘Sexting’ cases tricky for prosecutors

BY STACI WILSON

Using camera and video capabilities of cell phones and other wireless mobile devices, teenagers are able to disseminate sexually explicit pictures of themselves to others, an act commonly known as “sexting.”

In some cases, the sending of the pictures by the juveniles is mutually consensual; in other cases it is not.

Consensual or not, both constitute felonies under Pennsylvania’s child pornography law.

State police from Gibson recently filed petitions against three Susquehanna County juveniles involved in sexting incidents in the district attorney’s office.

The mother of a Susquehanna-area 13-year-old girl discovered naked photos of the teen’s 16-year-old boyfriend on her daughter’s cell phone. The girl said she had also sent pictures of herself naked to her boyfriend lives in the Clifford area.

In another incident, a 16-year-old male took a snapshot of a 15-year-old female exposing her genitalia during a live video feed without the girl’s knowledge.

According to police reports, the boy later showed the cell phone photo to classmates at Montrose Area High School.

District Attorney Jason Legg said only a handful of sexting cases have come to him over the past three to four years. “Prior to that – we never saw these kinds of cases,” Legg said.

But, he added, the cases only come to his attention if someone reports it. Legg said, “And normally the participants do not report it.”

Generally a school principal, teacher or other third party would have to see the pictures before there is any police involvement, said Legg.

Legg said, “Our policy has been to have a juvenile allegation form filed on every person engaged in sexting – but we have rarely followed through with an actual juvenile petition.”

Instead, Legg said, “there have been informal adjustments – three months of probation with some community service and education – and then, provided there are no problems, we release the child from supervision.”

“I don’t want to see kids getting felonies for this type of conduct,” Legg said.

But he added, if the informal adjustments do not work, then “our hand is forced and we would have to move into a formal juvenile petition – and the potential for something on the juvenile’s record.”

The state legislature is considering two bills, both introduced earlier this year that would create a law specifically addressing teen sexting. In each piece of proposed legislation, the offense would be reduced from a felony child pornography count to a misdemeanor charge.

But the two bills diverge in how sexting charges would ultimately be handled by authorities.

Senate Bill 850 addresses sexting and cyberbullying rising from non-consensual photos being posted or shared with the intent to harm another person.

House Bill 815 takes a broader swipe at sexting, allowing teens who consensually exchange nude pictures to be cited with misdemeanors

Neither measure has been approved to date by the legislature leaving district attorneys with limited measures available to deal with the cases.

“We really have no other way to proceed except to ignore it – which does not seem to be a realistic option,” Legg said.

In Wyoming County, the handling of about 20 teen sexting cases in 2008-09 made national news and helped bring the teen trend to the public eye.

Former District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. told the teens they would not be prosecuted if they participated in a five-week educational program but was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three juvenile females who refused to take part. The three argued the photos taken of them were not pornographic.

Legg said, “We have followed the book on these cases – and tried to send a message that this behavior is not appropriate.”