Since cell phones first saw widespread adoption in the 1990s, they've become not just ever present, but have developed vastly expanded capabilities, such as the ability to take and instantly share photos. This ability has lead to the phenomena of “sexting,” where people send suggestive or nude pictures to others using their cell phones. Some states have adopted laws that prescribe penalties aimed specifically at teenagers or adolescents who send such photos. These laws make the penalties for teen sexting less severe than if an adult would send similar photos to an under-age person.
To get state specific details regarding sexting, jump ahead to teen sexting laws by state.
New Area of the Law
Sexting laws are a relatively new phenomena in the law. Since 2009, about 19 states have adopted teen sexting laws, while in 2012 an additional 13 states were considering bills on the issue. Though teen sexting laws are not present in a majority of states, the trend appears to be towards more widespread adoption of sexting laws. In the meantime, in those states without sexting laws, sexting may still be punished under pre-existing laws that target child pornography.
The states that have adopted sexting laws have specifically targeted images sent between or among teenagers. For example, Connecticut's sexting law targets teens (anyone between 13 and 17) who either transmit or possess nude or obscene photos of either themselves or another teenager. The Connecticut law also makes distinctions between the age of the sender and the recipient, penalizing senders between the ages of 13 and 15 who send pictures of themselves, and recipients between the ages of 13 and 17 who receive any images.
However, state laws differ significantly. Louisiana, for example, prohibits anyone under the age of 17 from sending or keeping explicit photographs, while Texas allows an exception for sexting if a minor sexts with another minor who is no more than 2 years older or younger and the two are dating.
Sending or Receiving (Keeping)
Teen sexting laws prohibit both sending and receiving of explicit images. However, it isn't really possible to prevent someone else from sending you a photo. Because of that, sexting laws typically prohibit “receiving and keeping” any explicit images. If, for example, a teen receives an explicit or pornographic image from someone else, the teen hasn't violated a sexting law unless the teen chooses to keep the image. It may also be enough to avoid a sexting conviction if the person receiving the message tried to delete it but was unable to.
In some states, especially those that do not have specific sexting laws, anyone who creates, possesses, or distributes nude or explicit photos of a juvenile can be charged with child pornography or related crimes, such as the sexual exploitation of a minor. Child pornography charges can arise whenever a person sends or receives explicit images of a person under the age of 18. But it isn't just adults who send or receive such images who can be charged with these crimes, and even teens who send pictures of themselves to adults can face child pornography charges
Adults and Teens
It's important to note that even though sexting laws apply to teenagers, this doesn't mean that people over the age of 16 or 18 who send sex messages are free from committing a crime. For example, a 19-year old who sends or receives and keeps an explicit image of an person under the age of 18 may be charged with child pornography or similar crimes. Sexting laws are designed to target teens who send explicit images to other teens, making the crime less significant than a child pornography charge that would otherwise apply if the people involved were adults.
Because teen sexting can involve juvenile courts or adult courts, and cover various criminal laws, there is a wide range of potential penalties that may apply. In states that have specific laws that target sexting, the crime is typically either a misdemeanor offense or petty offense, a type of offense considered less serious than a misdemeanor. However, in other states a sexting offense may be considered child pornography, an offense that is typically charged as a felony and one that has much harsher penalties.
When a juvenile—a person under the age of 18—commits a criminal offense, that offense is dealt with through the juvenile justice system, not the adult criminal justice system. Juvenile courts have a wider discretion in the kinds of penalties they impose, even when a juvenile is charged with a serious offense.
- Warning. Juvenile judges can choose to punish a teen who commits a sexting offense with a verbal warning without requiring any other penalty.
- Fine. At least one state, Florida, imposes a fine of $60 on first-time juvenile sexting offenders. Subsequent offenders may face more significant penalties.
- Community service or counseling. A judge may order a teen who commits a sexting offense to perform community service. The court may also order a teen to attend individual or family therapy.
- Probation. Probation is also possible for juveniles sexting offenders. A teen on probation must typically report to a probation officer, stay in school, and comply with any other orders the court decides.
- Detention. Teen sexting might result in a a court ordering the juvenile into a detention center, home confinement, group home, or other placement location.
If a teen is 18 or older, that teen can be charged as an adult and face more significant penalties, especially if convicted of child pornography or a similar charge.
- Incarceration. An adult convicted of child pornography faces a potential prison sentence of 5 years or more. All felony convictions impose a sentence of at least a year in prison, though a person convicted may not have to serve any prison time at all.
- Fines. Sexting can result in significant fines, especially if the teen is convicted of a child pornography charge. Fines can easily exceed $5,000.
- Probation. An adult convicted of sexting can also face probation of at least 12 months, but typically longer.
- Sex offender registry. Adult teens convicted of a sexting crime are considered sex offenders and must register themselves with a state sex offender registry. Sex offender registries are typically maintained by the police. They keep track of where registered offenders live, and offenders must notify police of their new location if they move. The registration requirements differ by state, but usually last at least 10 years.
Teen Sexting Laws by State
Get state specific information for teen sexting laws and penalties. If your state does not have an article, check back later.
Speak to an Attorney
Any charges that stem from teen sexting can result in some very serious consequences for the teen, the people who shared photos with the teen, and the teen's parents or guardians. If you've been questioned by the police or charged with a sexting crime, you need to speak to an experienced local criminal defense lawyer immediately. Sexting can involve different criminal charges, and because these charges can differ so significantly between states, only a local attorney can provide you with legal advice about your case.
Keep in mind that if you end up with a conviction that requires registration as a sex offender, the consequences will be lifelong and dire, affecting your ability to work and severely limiting where you can live. For this reason alone, you absolutely must consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.