Legal system grappling with increasing trend

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story was published by our sister paper, The Decatur Daily, last week. Although the information primarily addresses concerns in Morgan County, the issue of teen texting is widespread and echoes the same concerns of Madison officials and parents.

An increase in minors sharing nude photos digitally, potentially leading to felony prosecutions and sex-offender status, is in part a result of ignorance of child pornography laws, authorities said.

“I would say we have tripled or better the issues we have with internet, texting and sexting, and we’re not the only state that has issues with the law,” said Morgan County District Judge Shelly Waters, the presiding judge over the county’s juvenile court system.

Because juvenile court records are sealed, determining exact numbers of minors charged and the nature of the offenses is not possible.
Sheriff Ana Franklin said incidents in which parents complain about images being shared among students have ramped up in recent years.
“In the last year, it has become almost a normal thing that people do,” she said.

Hartselle attorney Patrick Caver, a court-appointed defender in the juvenile court, said prosecutions of minors are typically reserved for the more severe cases, but all cases technically could be prosecuted.

“I haven’t been to a school yet where administrators haven’t said it was out of control,” said Caver, who teaches a class designed to educate teens, parents and others about the potential legal ramifications.

The problem, Caver said, is that teens do not understand that creating nude images of any person under the age of 17, including one’s self, constitutes production of child pornography under state law, a class A felony.

Sharing that image with another person, including other minors, constitutes distribution of child pornography, a class B felony, and simply possessing the image is also a class B felony, he said. Additionally, a parent who knows about such activity and does nothing to stop it could be charged with a class A felony, he said.

A conviction can result in imprisonment, as well as minors being forced to register as sex offenders for a period of 10 years. That can preclude them from certain jobs and educational opportunities.

“College is really difficult when you’re a sex offender,” Caver said.

According to Caver, state laws are due for an adjustment to account for issues such as the age of the individual involved and other issues not envisioned by lawmakers.

He said sex offender registries were intended to protect the public from predators, not teens who made poor decisions. The current laws have not kept pace, he said.

“They were written back in the ’70s. I mean some of them talk about floppy discs and VCR tapes,” he said.

But Franklin said adjusting the law could be problematic, because it would be difficult to differentiate between predatory behavior and simply irresponsible behavior.

“Where do you draw the line to say this person can have this picture but this person can’t? The law doesn’t say it’s OK because you made it and sent it to the person you wanted,” she said.

In a recent incident, Franklin said, more than 70 students were found to be in possession of a particular image at one school. That incident was dealt with through education, not criminal charges, she said.

Franklin said the focus should be on individual responsibility and education rather than amending the law.

“Arresting everybody in the whole school is not the answer, and that’s not what we’re trying to do, but they do need to be aware that being arrested is a possibility,” she said.

Meanwhile, school officials said sexting and related activity has increased, but is not out of control.

“I don’t think it’s risen to epidemic proportions yet, but we do see a rise in it,” Morgan County Schools Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said.

As mandatory reporters, school officials automatically report incidents to law enforcement when they believe a crime has been committed.
Hopkins said the problem is not that students don’t understand the law but that they believe they won’t get caught.

“They know it’s wrong to send those pictures. I don’t think anybody doesn’t know that,” he said, adding much of the responsibility belongs to the person who bought the student the electronic device to monitor his or her activity on it.

Caver said one of the major focuses of his class is to instruct parents on the various applications and techniques teens use to hide activity on their phones and other devices. He said parents need to monitor what their children do online.