"Sexting" is the sending of nude or sexually suggestive images electronically, whether through text messaging, social media, chat boards, or email. Sexting has become especially common among teenagers—many of whom are minors—and can easily be used to bully or harass.
States have taken various approaches to address teen sexting. Some have enacted laws prohibiting sexting between minors. These laws tend to have penalties that aren't as severe as when an adult sexts with a minor. Others punish sexting under preexisting laws against child enticement and child pornography, which can have harsh penalties.
Arizona is one of the states that has enacted legislation specifically addressing teen sexting. The law offers prosecutors a charging option that allows minors to avoid a felony record and sex offender registration.
Arizona law prohibits juveniles from using electronic communication devices to send or exchange images of minors that depict explicit sexual material.
Both juveniles and minors are defined as persons younger than 18. The definition of "explicit sexual material" includes material that shows human genitalia or nudity, sexual activity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.
Sending sexts. A juvenile who knowingly uses an electronic communication device to send or display a sexually explicit image of a minor (including a selfie) commits a petty offense. The penalty increases to a class 3 misdemeanor if the juvenile sent the image to multiple individuals.
Receiving or possessing sexts. The same statute penalizes the juvenile who received the sext. The penalty is a petty offense, but there's no violation if the juvenile did not solicit (ask for) the image and took reasonable steps to destroy the image or report it to a parent, guardian, teacher, or police officer.
For repeat violations of the juvenile sexting law, the penalty increases to a class 2 misdemeanor. A juvenile commits a repeat violation if he or she has a prior adjudication (the equivalent to a conviction in adult court) or prior record of completing a diversion program (an alternative disposition that avoids a delinquency record).
A petty offense is a fine-only offense with the maximum fine being $300. A class 3 misdemeanor carries a possible sentence of 30 days' detention and $500 in fines, and a class 2 misdemeanor carries a possible sentence up to four months' detention and $750 in fines.
(Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 8-201, 8-309, 8-341, 13-707, 13-802, 13-3551 (2019).)
Arizona's passage of its juvenile sexting law provides prosecutors an alternative charging option in juvenile sexting cases. A prosecutor still has the option to charge a teen with a more serious felony offense—sexual exploitation of a minor—if the facts fit the crime. Adults (including 18- and 19-year-olds) who sext images of minors can also be charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor.
A person commits sexual exploitation of a minor by knowingly creating, sending, possessing, or exchanging (including electronically) any image of a minor engaged in exploitive exhibition or other sexual conduct. Exploitive exhibition means the showing of the genitals or pubic or rectal areas of a person for the purpose of sexual stimulation.
The penalty for this crime depends on the age of the minor. Sexual exploitation of a minor age 15 or older is a class 2 felony punishable by up to 12.5 years in prison. Sexual exploitation of a minor younger than 15 triggers a sentencing enhancement for dangerous crimes against children. Under this enhancement, the maximum sentence increases to 24 years. A judge can also impose fines up to $150,000 for any felony.
(Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 13-702, 13-705, 13-801, 13-3551, 13-3553 (2019).)
The authorities usually handle offenses committed by juveniles through the juvenile justice system, not the adult criminal system. Juvenile courts have wider discretion in the types of penalties they can impose, including probation, community service requirements, restitution, treatment, and detention.
Juveniles age 14 or older who are charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor can be tried in juvenile court or may be transferred to adult court and face adult penalties.
(Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-501 (2019).)
Adults convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor must register as a sex offender under Arizona law. A court may require sex offender registration for a juvenile adjudicated of the same offense. A juvenile's duty to register ends at age 25, but the court may terminate sex offender registration earlier upon the juvenile's successful completion of probation.
Juveniles do not have to register for a petty or misdemeanor offense under the juvenile sexting law.
(Ariz. Stat. Rev. § 13-3821 (2019).)
If you've been questioned by the police or charged with a sexting crime, you should speak to an experienced criminal defense lawyer immediately. An experienced attorney will be able to provide you with legal advice and information on the potential consequences of the charges against you.