Charges Dropped in Teenage Sexting Case
Child pornography charges have been dismissed in a Northern Virginia case involving a 14-year old girl who sent a nude photograph to a classmate. But as Charles Fishburne reports, there is a raging controversy about the state law and what to do about it.
Cellphones, texting and sexting have opened new chapters, overnight, in the problems confronting parents, children and society as new technology engulfs us all.
Albo: The current, only current laws that cover something like that is the child pornography laws.
Fairfax Republican Delegate Dave Albo is Chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee.
Albo: And, as you can imagine, in Virginia we treat child pornography pretty harshly. You're guaranteed to go to prison and you will be put on the Sex Offender Registry for the rest of your life.
Anderson: We all know that this is a problem that has come up with technology across the country.
Patrick Anderson was the defense attorney, working for the ACLU, who successfully got prosecutors to drop felony charges against his 14 year-old client, whose female classmate sent him nude photographs of herself on the cellphone, making him in possession of child pornography.
Anderson: We all know that this is not something that we want our kids doing, and I'm sure parents talk to their kids about this stuff to make them understand this is not good to do. The problem is criminalizing it; these are good kids who just weren't being very thoughtful, weren't using their head and just did not use good judgement.
Perhaps the law should not be the last resort, but frequently is. And when it is in Virginia, there's a problem.
Willis: The real issue here, though, is to make sure that the law that's on the books doesn't get misapplied.
Kent Willis, Executive Director of the Virginia ACLU.
Willis: The child pornography law in Virginia, as in most places, is about adults who prey on children, and we need laws like that.
Willis says the Virginia law leaves no slack for stupid teenagers.
Willis: Those laws were never intended to apply to a stupid teenager who takes a picture of herself and sends it to a friend.
And Anderson says it's time the General Assembly did something about it.
Anderson: The ultimate thing is that it lies at the, the root of the problem lies at the General Assembly, who of course is made up of politicians who are interested in votes and being out there and saying, 'I'm tough on crime and we're gonna punish anybody we can for anything we can possibly think of.' Never mind the consequences later on in people's life.
But Fairfax Republican Delegate Dave Albo, a former member of the crime commission and current Chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee, says it’s not that simple.
Albo: I think all of us are sympathetic to that situation where a girl who's young and stupid and does something stupid, and the guy who has the picture. The other situation we're not so sympathetic to, and that's where someone takes a picture and sends it out on the internet, because it can never be recovered. It'll be on a zillion servers in a day, you know, so we've been looking at doing something that we could attempt to punish or stop it without ruining somebody's life, and every time we came up with a draft bill, we created more problems than we solved. The reason is, is because every time you try to make a situation where someone could possess a picture like that under those circumstances, you just give a road map to some kind of child predator freak to be able to figure out how to get off a charge.
A study at Indiana State University reports at least 20 percent of teens say they have engaged in sexting, which is the sending of sexually-explicit photos via cellphone. And the debate whether state law needs to be changed to deal with the volatile combination of new technology and teenagers is not over yet.
Albo: Until we can find a solution, and I'm not saying everybody's given up on it, but we worked really hard to try to find something. In Virginia, you have elected Commonwealth Attorneys; sometimes people wonder why a prosecutor would be elected. This is exactly why, because they have to answer to the people of Virginia every, I think it's four years they run. The prosecutor will look at these cases, and if he can get the parties in a room and say, 'have you learned your lesson? Can you do some community service? You write me a paper about why you can't do this. If everybody agreeds, girls, herself and her parents, guy and his parents and everybody agrees, then I'll consider not going forward with the charge.'
What we've decided is, in the meantime, it's reliant on our elected prosecutors to use their prosecutorial discretion and make the decisions about who they prosecute.
And having a very strong law is a good tool?
Albo: Oh, my goodness, we now have 373 sexual predators in a Virginia facility who have been proven absolutely that they will recommit if they come out, and the statistics show that a child molester will molest 22 kids before he's ever caught; so the absolute and utter last thing I wanta do is, with good intentions, write a law to help somebody and then find out that I just made it legal for these freaks to have these pictures.
Charles Fishburne, WCVE News