"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 punish sexting under preexisting laws against child enticement and child pornography, which often result in harsh, felony penalties. Other states have enacted laws addressing sexting between minors with reduced penalties that allow teenagers to avoid a felony conviction and sex offender registration. Additionally, some states are addressing cyberbullying and harassment in sexting laws—by imposing tougher penalties if the sender sends an image intending to harass, threaten, or intimidate another.
Georgia prosecutes sexting crimes involving minors under its preexisting laws prohibiting:
These laws carry felony and aggravated misdemeanor penalties. But the laws carve out reduced penalties for certain acts of teen sexting (as discussed below).
(While we often refer to "teen sexting," juvenile defendants in Georgia can be younger than 13. For ease of understanding, this article refers to acts committed by teenagers, but the age can be lower.)
Georgia law makes it a crime to knowingly possess, create, or distribute a "sexually explicit image" (other than a selfie) of a minor younger than 18. Sexually explicit images include those depicting sexual intercourse, sexual acts, or lewd exhibition of the genitals or pubic area. Sexting images of minors falls under this law whether the actor is the sender or receiver of the image.
Sexual exploitation of children is a felony offense if committed by an adult (older than 18). Teenagers age 18 and younger also face felony penalties for sexting if the conduct involved falls outside the misdemeanor exception below.
Georgia law carves out a misdemeanor penalty for certain acts of teen sexting. Misdemeanor penalties apply only if:
If the defendant did distribute the image to another person, a misdemeanor penalty may still apply if the prosecutor and defense agree, with the court's consent, that the defendant did not intend to make a profit or to harass, intimidate, or embarrass the minor.
A felony conviction carries a sentence between five and 20 years' imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000. The offense is considered a "sexual offense," which requires a mandatory minimum sentence that cannot be suspended.
The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor conviction is 12 months in jail, a fine of $1,000, or both.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-12-100; 17-10-3; 17-10-6.2 (2019).)
Sexting images of minors (other than selfies) can also fall under Georgia's law prohibiting computer or electronic child pornography. This law makes it a crime to intentionally possess, transmit, or receive an image of a child (younger than 16) engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
An adult (older than 18) who commits a crime of computer or electronic child pornography faces felony penalties. Teenagers age 18 and younger can also be charged with a felony if the conduct involved does not fall within the misdemeanor exception below.
The law allows a reduced misdemeanor penalty for certain acts of teen sexting. Misdemeanor penalties apply only if:
If the defendant distributed the image to another person, the court, prosecutor, and defense can agree to a misdemeanor penalty so long as the defendant did not act to harass, intimidate, or embarrass, or to make a profit.
A felony conviction carries a sentence between one and 20 years' imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000. A conviction for a misdemeanor can be punished by a maximum of 12 months in jail, a fine of $1,000, or both.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-12-100.2; 17-10-3 (2019).)
Sexting obscene images to a minor younger than 18 also constitutes a crime. Electronically providing obscene materials to a minor is a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature. The crime is reduced to a misdemeanor when committed by a teenager (age 18 or younger) if:
The penalty for a misdemeanor is up to 12 months' in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. For misdemeanors of a high and aggravated nature, the maximum fine increases to $5,000.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-12-100.1; 17-10-3; 17-10-4 (2019).)
Sex offender registration requirements apply to individuals convicted in adult court for any of the above crimes, unless the conviction is a misdemeanor. Registration is not required for individuals tried in juvenile court.
(Ga. Code § 42-1-12 (2019).)
Sexting cases involving offenders younger than 17 may be handled in juvenile court rather than adult court. In juvenile court, judges can often exercise greater discretion in sentencing, including ordering treatment, curfews, monitoring, and community service.
For minors age 15 or older and charged with a felony, the juvenile court can transfer the case to adult court. If charged in adult court, the minor faces adult penalties, including prison time and sex offender registration.
In Georgia, crimes committed by individuals 17 and older are tried in adult criminal court.
(Ga. Code §§ 15-11-2; 15-11-561 (2019).)
Any charges that stem from a sexting-related crime can result in serious consequences for those involved. If you or your child has been questioned by the police or charged with a 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.
Updated: May 5, 2020.
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