In January, the 17-year-old Prince William County resident allegedly sent a pornographic cellphone video of himself to his 15-year-old girlfriend, who had initiated the sexting. The mother saw the video on her phone — which her daughter was using — and confronted the boy. But he continued, police allege, and the mother filed a complaint, leading law enforcement to charge him with “manufacturing and distributing child pornography.” In order to ensure the video featured the teen, the police obtained a warrant two weeks ago to inject him with a drug to induce an erection and photograph it, but then backed down in the face of public resistance. They also decided not to use explicit photos that had been taken earlier.
The teenager’s lawyer last week rightly criticized the warrant as “traumatizing.” But more traumatizing for the boy is the prospect of facing almost four years in prison and a lifetime on the state sex-offender registry — for an alleged video of himself.
Child pornography laws are designed to protect children from exploitation. They’re to be used against adult predators or minors in specific situations, such as when a large age gap exists or pictures are coerced or mass-distributed against a minor’s will. Technology’s rapid development makes exploitation easier, raising new challenges for law enforcement.
The 17-year-old’s sexts were clearly not welcome. Even if the girl had consented, her mother shouldn’t have been subjected to the videos.
Even so, punishments must be proportional to crimes. There’s no Virginia sexting law, and these videos should not automatically fall under criminal child pornography laws. The teenager’s behavior puts him in the company of nearly 30 percent of his peers, according to one academic study. Yet according to the law, if convicted he would belong on a list featuring child molesters, rapists and sex predators — effectively derailing his employment and housing prospects and subjecting him to lifelong social stigmatization.
The typical remedy to such disproportionality is sound judgment by prosecutors and police. None was demonstrated in this case.
A more thoughtful response from Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert and Manassas Police Chief Douglas W. Keen would have been to talk to the children, alert their guardians and perhaps encourage their suspension from school. Only if the 17-year-old continued and developed malicious intent should filing charges have been considered. Courts usually sentence teenagers in sexting cases to supervised probation, not jail time, but that does not alleviate the gravity of a felony charge.
This case demonstrates the need for a bill that specifically addresses sexting between minors. Some states have classified consensual sexting between minors as a misdemeanor, an innovation that Virginia briefly considered and killed in House subcommittee this year. Constructing a foolproof bill is difficult because of potential loopholes, but a new law is nonetheless overdue.