Pennsylvania Sexting Law Goes Into Effect; West Chester Criminal Defense Lawyer Michael J. Skinner Discusses Likely Impact

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A new law went into effect December 14 in Pennsylvania that created a new crime, specifically affecting teenagers, that makes it a misdemeanor or summary offense for teenagers to text nude photos of themselves and others, often called "sexting." West Chester criminal defense lawyer Michael J. Skinner explains the law and offers some perspective on some of the problems with criminalizing adolescent behavior.

"Kids need to know not to send nude images of themselves and others, but they need to learn that from parents and teachers, not from the district attorney," said West Chester criminal defense attorney Michael J. Skinner.

On December 14, a law making the practice of "sexting" nude or illicit photos a misdemeanor or summary offense for teenagers went into effect. The law is the result of House Bill 815, passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett in October. While it is commendable that teenagers experimenting will no longer face the possibility of life-ruining child pornography charges, criminalizing normal teenage behavior will lead to kids damaging their future, said West Chester sex crime and juvenile offender defense lawyer Michael J. Skinner.

"Not understanding the ramifications of actions is the hallmark of teenage behavior," Skinner said. "Kids need to know not to send nude images of themselves and others, but they need to learn that from parents and teachers, not from the district attorney."

The new law is aimed to curb the practice of sexting among teenagers. Many, if not most, teenagers possess cell phones with cameras equipped, and it allows them to quickly take photos and send them to friends. Under the influence of hormones and possessing underdeveloped judgment, many of these teenagers send nude pictures of themselves or others to friends. A 2012 study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine Journal , reported that 28 percent of teenagers reported sending a nude photo of themselves through email or text message.

The new law only applies to those between the ages of 13 and 17. Anyone alleged to transmit photos of a minor 12 or younger could face felony child pornography charges. Under the law, it is a summary offense, similar to the severity of a traffic violation, for a minor older than 12 to electronically transmit any picture of himself or herself, or to knowingly view or possess an image of another minor older than 12. So, if a 14-year-old texts a nude picture of himself to his girlfriend, it is a summary offense. If his girlfriend is caught with the picture on her phone, she may also be charged with a summary offense.

It is a third degree misdemeanor for a minor to transmit, distribute, publish or disseminate a picture of another minor younger than 12. If the girlfriend above forwards the picture of her boyfriend to friends, she could therefore be charged with a third degree misdemeanor.

If, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, torment, harass or cause emotional distress, a minor either makes some kind of visual depiction of the minor in state of nudity without that minor's consent, or transmits, distributes, publishes or disseminates a photo of a minor in a state of nudity without that minor's consent, it is a second degree misdemeanor. If a girl takes a photo with her phone of another girl in the shower in an attempt to bully that girl, she could be charged with a second degree misdemeanor, regardless of whether she sent it to anyone. If a girl sends her boyfriend a nude picture of herself, they break up, and he forwards the picture to friends in an attempt to humiliate her, he could be charged with a second degree misdemeanor.

The new law is, in part, a reaction to incidents in which teenagers faced child pornography charges in Pennsylvania after sexting. The bill's author, Rep. Seth Grove, said he wrote the law to create a distinction between child pornography, which is the sexual exploitation of children by adults, and teenagers sexting, which is bad judgment by teenagers. However, while the child pornography charges were, at best, overzealous, the new law is also an overreaction that will have negative consequences, Skinner said.

"The behavior the law is addressing is certainly something kids need to learn not to do," he said. "This would be best accomplished by parents and teachers explaining the potential negative consequences of disseminating nude pictures. Putting these kids into the criminal justice system, even with summary offenses, is the harshest way to address this problem, but there's no evidence it's the most effective."

While sparing kids felony sex offense charges, which have not been successfully prosecuted when pressed for similar behavior in Pennsylvania, the criminal charges could still have the effect of damaging teenagers' chances at scholarships and colleges, and, therefore, harm lives, Skinner said.

"Education is the answer to this, and there simply is not evidence that criminalization works," he said.

Michael J. Skinner is a West Chester criminal defense lawyer with experience defending both juveniles charged with crime and those accused of sex offenses. He serves clients in Chester County, Montgomery County, Lancaster County and Delware County.

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