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Is Teen Sexting Child Pornography?


5/10/2021

With the proliferation of digital cameras and the ability to share photographs in an instant, many people – including teenagers – have started sharing images of themselves with others as part of courtship or dating. When teens share images of themselves with others, are they engaging in the creation and distribution of child pornography?

As is often the case with legal questions, the answer is that “it depends.” Many states, including Pennsylvania, have carved out exceptions for teen sexting. Furthermore, while teen sexting may be illegal under federal law in some cases, it seems that federal prosecutors are using their discretion in determining whether deciding whether to pursue serious child pornography charges against teenage sweethearts.

Child Pornography Laws

Possessing, producing, and/or distributing child pornography is a federal crime and involves any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving someone under the age of 18 years old. A first offense can result in fines and between 15 and 30 years in prison. In addition to being a federal crime, possessing, producing, and/or distributing child pornography is also actionable at the state level.

Pennsylvania law states that producing child pornography is a second-degree felony, and possessing and distributing or selling child pornography are third-degree felonies. Additionally, a mistake as to the age of the minor who is the subject of sexually explicit conduct is not a defense to a child pornography criminal charge.

“Sexting”

Sexting includes sending nude or sexually suggestive photos, videos, or other multimedia messages through electronic sources such as texting, email, or instant and direct messaging on social media websites. In recent years, many teens have engaged in sharing sexually suggestive or explicit photos of themselves or others. While some states do not have specific laws aimed at dealing with teen sexting, Pennsylvania is one of the states that have that particular legislation that penalizes teens engaged in sexting. Some penalties include felonies for those sexting crimes that are especially egregious. 

Pennsylvania’s Statute Regarding Teen Sexting

Teenagers are prone to make mistakes and often fail to think of the consequences of their actions. With the rise of electronic communication and social media in recent years, making poor choices, like cyberbullying and sexting, has become quick and easy. In 2012, Pennsylvania passed a law in the hopes of preventing the often tragic consequences of sexting that makes teenagers who engage in sexting guilty of a summary offense or a misdemeanor. A summary offense is the least serious criminal offense in Pennsylvania. While it may not result in jail time, it can end up on a criminal record which may require disclosure to employers, schools, and other agencies. A misdemeanor carries fines and possible jail time and can affect future employment and your ability to participate in government assistance programs.

Under Pennsylvania’s sexting laws, it is illegal for teens to share or transmit nude images of themselves or any minor over 12 via means of electronic communication. Furthermore, it is illegal for teens to possess any nude photo of any minor over the age of 12 old. This means that possessing the nude image regardless of whether the recipient asked for the image or not is a misdemeanor.

A teen who shares a sexually explicit “selfie” will be guilty of a summary offense. Viewing a sexually explicit image of a minor is also a summary offense. However, the offense becomes a third-degree misdemeanor if the teen shares or distributes the image. When a teen uses a sexually explicit image of a minor to harass the minor or otherwise cause some sort of emotional distress, the offense is classified as a second-degree misdemeanor.

Penalties for Teens Who Are Found Guilty of Sexting

When a teen sends, shares, or possesses sexually explicit images of a minor, he or she must give up the devices used to communicate or possess the images to the police, and there will be no compensation for the taken device.

In addition to forfeiture of the device, a teen who commits a summary offense may be subject to jail time of up to 90 days and up to a $300 fine. However, there are ways to avoid jail time. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help to get a teen convicted of sexting accepted into a diversionary program. These programs aim to inform teenagers of the risks associated with sexting and its potential consequences. Upon successful completion of a diversion program, a teen may have his or her criminal record expunged.

Depending on the degree of the misdemeanor of which a teen is found guilty, he or she may face jail time of up to two years. Additionally, fines for second and third-degree misdemeanors range from $2500 to $5000.

What About Sexually Explicit Images of Minors Under the Age of 12?

Possessing or distributing sexually explicit images of minors under the age of 12 is punishable under Pennsylvania’s stricter child pornography and obscenity statutes. In other words, teens engaged in sexting images of children under 12 or children engaged in sexual conduct will face harsher penalties.

Depending on the crime, the teen might face penalties for committing a second or third-degree felony. The teen could be imprisoned for a period of time ranging from 7 to 10 years. Additionally, he or she could be required to pay fines between $15,000 and $25,000.

The teen will be charged with a third-degree felony for a first offense if possessing or sharing child pornography. If the teen commits the same offense again, he or she will be charged with a second-degree felony. Additionally, producing child pornography is a second-degree felony.

Call Us Today to Schedule a Free Case Evaluation with a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

If you’ve been arrested or charged with a crime in Philadelphia, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Attorney Lauren A. Wimmer has spent years representing clients who have been accused of committing misdemeanors and felonies in Philadelphia. She has prior experience as a judicial law clerk in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Trial Division. This has allowed attorney Lauren A. Wimmer to develop a thorough understanding of the criminal justice system. Additionally, she has learned strategies and tactics that prosecutors tend to use to send those accused of crimes to jail or impose hefty fines.

Her extensive knowledge of the law, skills acquired through years in the criminal court system, and desire to protect your rights while fighting for your freedom make her a tireless advocate and one you want representing you in the courtroom. If you need a criminal defense lawyer who puts her clients first, schedule your consultation with Wimmer Criminal Defense Law by calling 215-712-1212 or submitting our online contact form.