Authorities Treat Those Accused of “Sexting” as Sex Offenders

April 09, 2009 01:59 PM
by Anne Szustek
More schools and courts are considering criminal charges in response to an increase in cases where allegedly suggestive photos of minors are transmitted via cell phone.

Does “Sexting” Constitute a Sex Offense?

Florida resident Phillip Alpert, upset after an argument with his high school sweetheart, sent a nude cell phone picture of her to his friends and family. Alpert had just turned 18; his girlfriend was 16. Alpert told CNN, “It was a stupid thing I did because I was upset and tired and it was the middle of the night and I was an immature kid.”

Orlando, Fla. police arrested Alpert and charged him with sending child pornography. He pleaded no contest and was later convicted of the felony offense. As per Florida law, he must now register as a sex offender, “a label he will carry until the age of 43,” CNN reports, and his name appears on an Internet registry of sex offenders in Florida.

As a result, he has been expelled from college, can’t find a job and cannot travel outside of his home county without checking in with his probation officer.
Some other jurisdictions are taking decidedly less traditional approaches to the technologically advanced issue of “sexting,” sending sexually explicit photographs via text messaging. The Glen Rock, N.J. public school district has instituted a 24-hour deadline for all students to remove from their cell phones and computers widely circulated nude pictures of a female teenage student. Should students not comply, they face possible criminal charges.

When 20 students at Pennsylvania’s Tunkhannock High School were caught apparently sexting, Wyoming County, Penn. District Attorney George Skumanick, Jr. gave them the option of probation, classes and counseling or facing criminal charges for sexual abuse of a minor. On March 30, a Pennsylvania judge enforced a temporary restraining order blocking the prosecution of three girls pictured in the circulating photographs. With the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, their parents requested the order on the grounds that Skumanick’s actions were “retaliatory” and that the paper they would have had to write was tantamount to “forced expression” in violation of their First Amendment rights, writes PC Magazine. The photos in question showed one of the teens in a swimsuit. Others showed the girls in opaque training bras or wearing a towel.

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Background: Sexting and teens

Sexting is more common than many might think, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. According to the survey, about 20 percent of teens admitted to participating in sexting.

But even if teens are sending the photos in shocking numbers, Patrick Artur, a Philadelphia defense attorney who has handled many child pornography cases, believes charging the teens for photos they took themselves runs counter to current child pornography laws. “It’s clearly overkill,” he said to MSNBC.

That month, in another instance of “sexters” being prosecuted in connection for alleged sex crimes, three female high school students were facing charges of manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography, after taking and sending nude or semi-nude photos of themselves to male students, while the three male students who received the pictures are facing charges of possession.

The photos were discovered in October when school officials seized one of the boys’ cell phones when he was using it Greensburg Salem High School in Greensburg, Pa., in violation of school rules.

The cases were resolved in juvenile court in March. The six students were sentenced to curfews and community service.

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