Sexting is the sending of nude, sexual, or otherwise explicit images electronically, whether by text messaging, Internet messaging, social media, chat boards, or email. Sexting by and between teens—many of whom are minors—is especially prevalent.
States have taken various approaches to address teen sexting. Some have enacted laws that specifically address sexting by or between minors. These laws tend to have penalties that aren't as severe as when an adult sexts with a minor. Other states punish sexting under preexisting laws against sexual exploitation of a child or child pornography, which often have harsh penalties.
Alabama is one of the states that does not have a teen sexting law. As a result, teens and minors who send or receive sext messages can face harsh penalties under the state's child pornography and obscenity laws.
Sexting is covered under several criminal statutes in Alabama law, which can be broken out by crimes involving sexting sexually explicit images of minors and those involving sexting sexually explicit images to minors. Generally, the penalties are harsher when the image depicts a minor.
Alabama's child pornography laws make it a felony to produce (create), distribute, or possess obscene images, videos, and other materials that depict a minor younger than 17 engaged in an act of sexual conduct or lewd exhibition of nudity of the breasts or genitals.
Selfies. The child pornography laws do not specify that the image must be of another minor, so a minor taking an explicit selfie and sexting it to others would presumably fall under the statute's prohibitions.
Penalties. The penalties for sexting vary based on the act involved. Possession of obscene images of a minor constitutes a class C felony. Distribution or possession with intent to distribute such images is a class B felony. And producing (creating) the image is a class A felony.
Sentences. The penalty for a class A felony in Alabama is a prison term of 10 to 99 years or life and a fine up to $60,000. A conviction for a class B felony carries a prison term of two to 20 years and up to a $30,000 fine. Class C felonies are punished by a minimum prison sentence of a year and a day up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $15,000.
Child younger than 12. If the child depicted in the image is younger than 12, the minimum prison sentence increases to 20 years for a class A felony and 10 years for a class B or C felony.
Examples. These crimes apply to acts committed by both adults and minors. Say, for example, a 14-year-old sexts a nude selfie to her 16-year old girlfriend. The 14-year-old sending the selfie commits a class A felony (creating an image), while the receiver of the image could be prosecuted for a class C felony (possession of the image). As another example, let's suppose a 19-year-old sends a nude picture of his 15-year old girlfriend to his guy friends (distribution). The 19-year-old committed a class B felony.
(Ala. Code §§ 13A-5-6, -11; 13A-12-190, -191, -192, -197 (2020).)
The law also makes it a misdemeanor to send harmful (obscene) materials to a minor younger than 18. Harmful material includes anything that depicts sexual conduct or nudity of the breasts or genitals. Under this law, an adult or minor who sexts a nude selfie or another obscene image to a minor faces a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
If the defendant's intent in sending the material is to initiate or engage in sexual acts with the child, the crime becomes a class B felony. A conviction for a class B felony carries a prison term of two to 20 years and up to a $30,000 fine. Any minor charged under this section must be tried as an adult.
(Ala. Code §§ 13A-6-111; 13A-12-200.1, 200.5 (2020).)
Alabama law provides enhanced penalties for anyone with a felony criminal record. The enhancement depends on the felony level of the current and prior offense(s) and the number of prior convictions. More information can be found at Alabama Felony Crimes by Class and Sentence.
(Ala. Code § § 13A-5-6, 13A-5-11 (2020).)
Typically, offenses committed by minors go through the juvenile justice system. Juvenile delinquency courts have wider discretion than adult criminal courts in the types of penalties they can impose. In Alabama, minors younger than 18 generally fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. But the law contains fairly broad transfer provisions that can result in many juveniles being tried in adult court.
Certain juveniles are automatically transferred to adult court, including those age 16 or 17 who are charged with a class A felony. Once in adult court, the minor faces adult penalties and loses the ability to go back to juvenile court for future offenses. ("Once an adult, always an adult.") In other cases, a prosecutor may file a motion to transfer a child age 14 or older to adult court. The judge must determine if the transfer is in the best interest of the public and the minor.
Alabama law also has an in-between status for youth younger than 21, referred to as "youthful offender status." The youth must petition the court for this option. For those age 18 to 20, youthful offender status provides significant benefits over adult prosecution, including reduced sentences, confidential court proceedings, and sealed records. It also means not having a "conviction" on their record.
(Ala. Code §§ 12-15-102, -203; 15-19-1 to -7 (2020).)
Alabama requires a person convicted of, or adjudicated delinquent for, any of the above offenses to register as a sex offender. In Alabama, sex offender registration applies to juveniles, youthful offenders, and adult offenders.
However, juvenile offenders convicted of child pornography charges (distributing or possessing an obscene image of a minor younger than 17) are presumed exempt from these requirements once counseled on the dangers of their actions, unless the court decides otherwise.
(Ala. Code §§ 15-20A-3, -5, -24, -26 (2020).)
If you are accused of a crime in Alabama involving sexting, you should immediately speak with a criminal defense attorney. A conviction for possessing, producing, or sharing sexually explicit images of an underage person can result in a lengthy prison sentence, as well as a substantial fine and mandatory sex offender registration. An attorney will evaluate your case and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the case against you. You should also seek the attorney's advice on the future consequences of any plea deal or other negotiation. A criminal record can severely limit your ability to find a job or housing down the road.