Greater sensitivity needed in handling of sexting cases

By Anne Collier

Given the nature of the sexting case that federal judge Jennifer Coffman decided not to dismiss, it seemed like a good decision. A 14-year-old boy allegedly pestering for months an emotionally vulnerable girl his age into making and sending him a sexually explicit video of herself, the video then getting circulated around their school and in other area schools, with prank calls, vandalism, and a change of schools ensuing for the girl and her family, reports. Contrary to the defendant’s claims, Judge Jennifer Coffman, the chief federal judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky, ruled that federal child-sexual-exploitation law applies “because the law applies to all ‘persons’ regardless of age or social equality”; that if the girl’s claim that she was “induced” holds up, she did not violate the same statute (concerning distribution of sexually explicit depiction of a minor) because she was a victim; and that “’prosecutors have begun to charge minors under child pornography statutes’ in sexting cases around the country, though ‘no federal precedent exists for a suit against a minor under these statutes.’… In her view, 14-year-olds can in fact sexually exploit other children, and can be held liable for that exploitation.” That makes some sense because the case seems to fall into the Aggravated category of the Crimes Against Children Research Center’s new sexting typology (see this), but should a federal law concerning minors’ exploitation not consider the alleged exploiter’s age? This case hasn’t been tried yet, and it would likely be handled differently, sometimes less thoughtfully, in other jurisdictions.

Another equally challenging case also involving 8th-graders but in Washington State, detailed in the New York Times, involved police removing students from school in handcuffs. The Times’s reporting made it seem as if one of the teens being prosecuted meant no harm. “Eventually a deal was brokered for the three teenagers who were charged. The offense would be amended from the child pornography felony to a gross misdemeanor of telephone harassment. [The boy who received the photo] and the two girls who had initially forwarded the photo [with his phone] would be eligible for a community service program that would keep them out of court, and the case could be dismissed.” But not without the three having to meet with the girl depicted in the photo “to talk about what happened.” Though the prosecutor was reportedly very pleased with his handling of the case, the teens’ treatment seemed more blunt-instrument clumsy to me. Thankfully, there’s now a typology, so sexting by minors is less of a mystery and so schools, law enforcement, and courts can understand the spectrum of behaviors and intents to be considered and make decisions that are more thoughtful and less political. This may, hopefully, lead to more sensitive treatment, but so much depends on the personalities involved and the jurisdiction (see the Times’s sidebar). [See also “What to tell a kid sent a ‘sext’.”]

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