Teens Who Transmit Explicit Photos Can Get Caught in Web of Porn Laws

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

In Fairfax County, a teenage boy sent out a text message asking girls to send photos of their breasts. Word got out at his high school, police said, and when authorities tracked the teen down, they discovered a cache of naked images on his phone.

Thus began another investigation into "sexting" -- sending sexually explicit photos by cellphone -- and another deliberation about when adolescent impulsiveness and indiscretion become a serious criminal act. Some of the photos could qualify as child pornography, a felony in Virginia, police said.

"He thought it was a mischievous, fun game, without realizing he was asking these girls to commit a crime and he was committing a crime," said Sgt. Bill Fulton of the Fairfax Police Department.

The sexting phenomenon, which has alarmed parents and educators, is also raising an array of practical questions about how police and prosecutors should respond and what the long-term fallout could be for children.

Locally, the issue appears to have hit a tipping point in public concern. In Fairfax, police organized a community meeting April 20 with a flier that said: "Sexting: It is here. It is destroying lives. Is your teen sending racy photos using their cellphone?"

"This whole phenomenon seems to have exploded in the last 60 days," said John McCarthy, the state's attorney for Montgomery County, who said prosecutors across Maryland have exchanged ideas about the troubling trend.

The problem, he said, is that child porn laws never contemplated "children sharing images of themselves," and youthful sexters have little concept of their actions as a crime. "You can literally see the shock on their faces," McCarthy said.

Nationally, sexting cases have made it into headlines, legislatures and courtrooms. In some states, juveniles have faced the possibility of criminal charges. In Florida, an 18-year-old was listed on a sex offender registry. In Vermont and Ohio, lawmakers have drafted sexting-related bills.

In Fairfax, Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said his office is handling a case in which school resource officers charged a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old who were sending naked images and video. But Morrogh described most sexting as "juvenile bad judgment" and said he is "not keen on lumping school kids in with child pornographers."

Fairfax police typically confer with prosecutors on cases, which may lead to counseling and education, or to juvenile court. The trend is new enough, said Morrogh, that "it's sort of evolving." With child pornography laws written for adults who prey on children, "we're sort of pounding a square peg into a round hole with these cases."

"Obviously we are not going to lock up two teens for doing this to each other, but we do want them to understand it's a crime and a dangerous activity," he said.

At the Stafford County Sheriff's Office, deputies have tracked cases for a second school year, with 14 reports in 2007-08 and at least 19 this school year. Said Detective Darryl Wells: "It's not just high school and middle school. It's now getting into elementary school as well."

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