“Sexting” is the sending of nude or sexually explicit photos or communications by text message, email, or other electronic means. When sexting involves naked or sexual photos of children younger than 18, the images are considered child pornography and people, even teenagers, sending and receiving such images can be prosecuted and convicted for serious crimes. In contrast, the consensual, non-commercial, and private sending of sexually explicit photos of adults to other adults is generally permitted. While some states have specific laws targeting teen sexting, Missouri legislators dropped such a law from a more general crime bill in 2009. However, Missouri does have other laws regarding sex crimes against children that can be used to prosecute teenagers involved in sexting.
For more information on sexting generally, see Teen Sexting.
Sexting is thought to be common among teenagers. Many people believe parents and school officials–-rather than prosecutors and police officers–-should handle teen sexting cases. However, sexting can have very real consequences. Subsequent distribution of the pictures can cause distress and humiliation, and, in the worst scenario, self-harm. With the rise in teenagers’ use of technology, it's very easy to distribute or make public nude or suggestive photos and videos and very difficult to get rid of them. Sexted images can also be found by pedophiles and pornographers.
Under Missouri’s laws, possession of child pornography--any nude and suggestive depiction of a child (a person younger than 18) or a depiction of a child engaged in sexual conduct--is a crime. The 2013 amendments to Missouri’s child pornography law make it clear that each pornographic image will result in a separate criminal charge. So, for example, distributing 20 illegal images will typically lead to 20 charges of child pornography.
A person who distributes nude or sexual images of a child can also be found guilty of the crime of promoting child pornography. If the child is younger than 14, then the crime is promoting child pornography in the first degree. As an example, students who have on their cellphones nude photos of other teens younger than 18 could face charges for possessing child pornography. If they share those images by texting them to their friends, they could also be charged with promoting child pornography.
Making child pornography is also a crime, called sexual exploitation of a minor under Missouri’s laws. A person commits this crime by producing or creating sexually explicit materials, such as a video, photograph, or other recording, featuring a child. Sexual exploitation is punished more severely if the child is younger than 14. 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. (Mo. Ann. Stat. § § 573.010, 573.023, 573.025, 573.035, 573.037.)
For more information on related issues, see Child Enticement Laws in Missouri.
Under Missouri law, it's also a crime for people to expose themselves to children younger than 15 or to persuade such children to expose themselves for sexual purposes. The crime may be committed in person or by electronic means, such as the Internet. For example, a person who coaxes a 14-year-old girl to expose her breasts during a video chat could be convicted under this law. (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 566.083.)
It is also a crime in Missouri to furnish pornography to minors or participate in a sexual performance to be viewed by minors. So, an adult (or a child) who sends a 17-year-old teenager a nude photo of an adult could be convicted of this crime. (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 573.040.)
SEXTING AND FEDERAL LAW
Depending on the circumstances, sexting may also be a crime under federal law.
The Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act of 2003 makes it illegal to produce, distribute, receive, or possess with intent to distribute any obscene visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Knowing possession of such material—without intent to distribute—is also a crime under the PROTECT Act. (18 U.S.C. § 1466A(a)(1).)
Federal law also criminalizes causing a minor to take part in sexually explicit conduct in order to visually depict that conduct. Parents who allow this behavior can also be prosecuted. (18 U.S.C. § 2251.)
It’s also a federal crime to use a computer to ship, transport, receive, distribute, or reproduce for distribution a depiction of a minor actually engaging in sexually explicit conduct, or any material that otherwise constitutes child pornography. It’s another federal crime to promote or solicit sexually explicit material involving a minor. (18 U.S.C. § § 2252, 2252A.)
But federal prosecution of juveniles for sexting may be unlikely. The Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act (FJDA) generally provides that, where possible, juveniles should be prosecuted in state—not federal—courts. (18 U.S.C. § 5032.)
Possession of child pornography is usually a class C felony, punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, or one year in jail, and a fine up to $5,000. Promoting child pornography may be a class C felony, unless the child is under the age of 14, in which case the crime may be a class B felony, punishable by five to 15 years in prison. Making child pornography is a class B felony, unless the child is under the age of 14, in which case it is a class A felony, punishable by ten to 30 years in prison or life imprisonment.
Sexual misconduct is a class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, or one year in jail. The court also can impose a fine. Furnishing pornography to minors is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail or a fine of up to $1,000, or both. These crimes are punished more severely if the defendant has a prior conviction for certain sex crimes. (Mo. Ann. Stat. § § 566.083, 568.080, 573.023, 573.025, 573.035, 573.037, 573.040.)
People in Missouri who are convicted of possession of child pornography, promoting child pornography, sexual exploitation of a minor, sexual misconduct, or furnishing pornographic material to minors must register as sex offenders. (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 589.400.)
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 teen 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.