Sexting is the sending of nude or sexually explicit photos or communications by text message, email, chat, or other electronic means. Consensual sexting between adults of adult images is generally legal. But when sexting involves naked or sexual photos of children younger than 18, the images can be considered child pornography.
As sexting has become more prevalent, especially among teenagers, some states have enacted laws that specifically address sexting by and between minors. Usually, these laws have less severe penalties than laws in states that continue to prosecute sexting involving minors under preexisting child pornography laws.
Missouri is one of the states that has not enacted legislation addressing teen sexting. As a result, teenagers—many of whom are minors—can face harsh penalties under the state’s child pornography laws, including felony penalties and sex offender registration. For more information on sexting generally, see Teen Sexting.
Sexting images of minors falls under Missouri’s child pornography laws. The penalties vary depending on the age of the victim depicted in the image and whether the offender creates, promotes (shares), or possesses the image.
Definitions. Child pornography is defined as any image, photo, or video that depicts a minor younger than 18 engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Sexually explicit conduct includes sexual intercourse, masturbation, or lewd exhibition or physical contact of genitals or the pubic area.
Selfies. Missouri's statutes do not distinguish between sexually explicit images taken of one’s self and those taken of another minor. Without language to the contrary, presumably, a minor who takes a sexually explicit selfie and sends it to another person would be subject to the child pornography laws.
The harshest penalties for child pornography apply when someone knowingly creates—whether by photographing, filming, or videotaping—sexually explicit images of a minor younger than 18. The penalty is a class B felony unless the minor depicted in the image is younger than 14, in which case the penalty increases to a class A felony.
Under this section, a teenager who convinces his 15-year-old girlfriend to allow him to make a video of their intimate activities could be convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor. There’s also the potential that a prosecutor could file class A or B felony charges against any minor who takes a sexually explicit selfie.
Class A felonies carry a maximum sentence of ten to 30 years and up to life in prison. A person who commits a class B felony faces a maximum sentence of five to 15 years in prison.
A person who distributes or possesses with intent to distribute sexually explicit images of a minor commits the crime of promoting child pornography. Depending on the circumstances of the crime, the crime is a first- or second-degree offense.
First-degree offense. If the image depicts a child younger than 14, the crime is a first-degree offense. Class B felony penalties apply if the person distributes the image to an adult. Class A felony penalties apply when images are sent to a minor younger than 18. Anyone found guilty of a first-degree offense is not eligible for probation, parole, or conditional release for a minimum of three years.
Second-degree offense. Second-degree penalties apply when the image depicts a child 14 or older but younger than 18. If the image is sent to a minor, the penalty is a class B felony. Otherwise, the crime is a class D felony. Anyone found guilty of a second-degree offense is not eligible for probation.
Penalties. The sentence for a class A felony is ten to 30 years in prison and up to life. Class B felonies can be punished by a maximum sentence of five to 15 years in prison. And a person convicted of a class D felony faces up to seven years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
A person who knowingly possesses one sexually explicit still image of a minor younger than 18 commits a class D felony and faces up to seven years in prison. If the person possesses a video or more than 20 still images, the penalty increases to a class B felony with a five- to 15-year sentence. A second offense under this section also constitutes a class B felony.
(Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 558.011; 573.023, .025, .035, .037 (2020).)
Under Missouri law, it's also a crime for anyone (adult or minor) to expose their genitals to a child younger than 15 or to persuade a child to expose him or herself for sexual purposes. The crime may be committed in person or by electronic means, such as the Internet. A Missouri court held that sending explicit photographs to a child via the Internet constitutes “exposure” under the statute. (State v. Bouse, 150 S.W.3d 326 (Mo. Ct. App. 2004).)
A first offense under this section is a class E felony, punishable by up to four years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If the person has been previously found guilty of a pornography-related offense, the penalty is a class D felony, which has a maximum sentence of seven years’ incarceration. (Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 558.011; 566.083 (2020).)
Furnishing pornographic materials or sexually explicit images to a minor younger than 18 constitutes a class A misdemeanor. A second or subsequent violation under the pornography chapter raises the penalty to a class E felony. The maximum penalty for a class A misdemeanor is one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. A class E felony could land a person in prison for up to four years, plus payment of a $10,000 fine. An adult or minor who sexts a selfie to an underage person could be convicted of this crime. (Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 558.011; 573.040 (2020).)
Minors younger than 17 (18 as of 1/1/21) fall under the jurisdiction of Missouri’s juvenile court. The juvenile justice system has more flexibility when it comes to sentencing options (called dispositions) than adult courts.
Charges for misdemeanor offenses will be heard in juvenile court. For felony charges, if the minor is 12 or older, the case may be heard in juvenile court or transferred to adult court. A minor tried as an adult faces adult penalties.
When a minor is transferred to adult court, Missouri requires the judge to consider “dual jurisdiction,” under which the minor receives both a juvenile disposition and an adult sentence. Under dual jurisdiction, the judge suspends the adult sentence and imposes the juvenile sentence. The adult sentence hangs over the minor as incentive to successfully complete the juvenile sentence. If the minor doesn't abide by the terms of the juvenile sentence, the judge can impose the adult sentence.
(Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 211.031, .071, .073 (2020).)
Adults and minors tried as adults who are convicted of any of the above crimes must register as sex offenders. A juvenile adjudicated delinquent for sexual misconduct (exposure to a child younger than 15) must register as a juvenile sex offender until reaching the age of 21. (Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 589.400, .425 (2020).)
Missouri’s laws against child pornography are complex. If you are or someone in your family is charged with a crime as a result of sexting, you should talk to an experienced Missouri criminal defense attorney. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court, protect your rights, and present the strongest defense.