Sexting Laws

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What Is sexting?

Sexting is defined as the act of transmitting sexually explicit messages, primarily through the use of cell phone text messaging. The messages usually contain illicit photographs or video links depicting the person sending them. They can be sent from one person to another, and sometimes they may be sent to mass recipients.
Sexting is a growing trend primarily amongst teenagers who send “sext” messages in connection with dating or flirting. The main concern is that if the person sending or receiving the message is under the legal age of adulthood, they may be convicted of possession or distribution of child pornography (especially if the photograph depicts a minor).  

Sexting can also create major problems if the explicit pictures are obtained by other persons without the sender’s consent, such as an older person or a registered sex offender. Sexting is a relatively recent development, so the laws governing it are sometimes still in development and may vary from state to state. 

What states are prosecuting sexting charges?

Many states impose criminal penalties for sexting. This is usually done under the umbrella of child pornography laws. Sexting is specifically illegal in several states, and at least 20 others are considering criminalizing the act. Some states that are known to prosecute for sexting charges include Indiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wyoming. 

What types of sentencing are involved in sexting charges?

Depending on the jurisdiction’s sexting laws, sexting can result in either felony or misdemeanor criminal charges. Sentencing for felony charges can result in heavy fines from $500-$1,000 and/or a prison sentence of at least one year. Misdemeanor charges result in fines of hundreds of dollars and/or one year maximum in jail. 

Again, the main concern in sexting sentences is whether child pornography laws apply.  Such laws are where the state derives their authority to impose felony charges for the act of sexting. Child pornography charges in a sexting context can also result in the defendant being placed on a registered sex offender list. In some states even minors have been placed on such lists as a result of sexting charges.     

Are there any defenses to sexting charges?

In most instances the best defense to sexting charges is that of consent. If both parties consented to the sext messages, then they may possibly face misdemeanor charges rather than felony charges.     

Additionally, there is a growing legislative movement to do away with felony charges for sexting. Teens engaging in consensual sexting would only receive misdemeanor charges. Many states are now implementing these changes. However, felony charges will remain in place for adults who engage in sexting and for teens who engage in sexting without the other person’s consent. Be sure to double-check with an attorney or your local municipality for the details of your jurisdiction’s sexting laws and for possible defenses.

What should I do if my child is engaged in sexting?

Parents who are concerned about whether their children are engaged in sexting should discuss with them the dangers involved in such practices. Sexting has led to incidents of abuse and can often cause major damage to the teen’s reputation and social life. As mentioned, sext messages can easily be distributed to a large group of people or classmates. 

Parents should also inform their children of the severe legal consequences associated with sexting. In general, parents will not be held liable for children who choose to send sext messages. However, the parent may become liable for other issues such as negligence or child neglect. This can happen if they know that their child is in a precarious situation and yet fail to take measures to report or prevent the wrongdoing.

Finally, as a response to the phenomenon of sexting, many states are now offering educational programs intended to alert teens to the dangers of sexting. A number of school districts also currently include a discussion of sexting as part of their sex education curriculum. As a preventative measure, concerned parents can direct their children to such programs.

Do I need a lawyer for sexting charges?

Sexting charges are very serious and can carry with them felony or misdemeanor charges, which can stay permanently on one’s record. Obtaining a criminal lawyer is essential if you are faced with a legal dispute over sexting issues. This is especially true if the defendants are minors who are facing heavy legal consequences. A criminal defense lawyer can help determine the proper course of action under your state’s sexting laws. 

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Last Modified: 11-20-2013 03:40 PM PST

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