RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate on Monday passed a bill intended to keep teenagers who willingly share sexually explicit images with one another from being branded felony sex offenders.
The measure, which passed on a bipartisan 35-to-5 vote, would give prosecutors the option to charge "sexting" among minors as a misdemeanor.
Under current law, the sender and recipient can be charged with dissemination and possession of child pornography, a felony. That means prosecutors must choose between bringing felony charges or doing nothing, said Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), who sponsored the bill with Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax).
Stanley said the bill would let prosecutors "do something in the middle, not to end someone's life before it even begins with a felony conviction that doesn't fit the crime."
Under the proposed legislation, a minor who transmits sexually explicit images to another minor could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $2,500, as long as there is no intent to harass or intimidate, or to extort money. That scenario might apply to teens who show explicit photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends to friends, supporters of the bill said.
A less-serious Class 2 misdemeanor charge would apply if the minor possesses no more than 10 images, and if he or she obtained them with the permission of the subject. That charge carries a maximum six-month sentence and a fine of $1,000. A first offender would be eligible for six months' probation and 50 hours of community service.
A handful of senators expressed concern that, as written, the measure could criminalize the possession of any pornography — depicting a minor or not — by a minor.
Some also said the bill could make it more likely that minors face criminal charges for something best left in the realm of parental response.
"You don't need a statute to take the phone away," said Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax City). "It's well intentioned, but what we need is more involved parenting."
The measure goes to the House of Delegates for consideration.