“Sexting” is the sending of nude or sexually suggestive images (usually photos) 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 cyberbully or harass.
States have taken various approaches to address teen sexting. Some have enacted laws prohibiting 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 child enticement and child pornography, which can result in harsh punishments for both adults and minors.
In Ohio, sexting images of minors and sexting images to minors can be prosecuted under the state’s existing laws relating to child pornography, child endangerment, and dissemination of harmful material to minors. Which kind of law applies depends on the conduct in question.
Ohio’s law defines “minor” as a person younger than 18.
Sexting images of a minor falls under Ohio’s child pornography laws, which make it a felony for anyone to:
Ohio’s child pornography laws don’t distinguish between acts committed by adults and by minors. Just like an adult, a minor who creates, shares, or possesses a sexual image of a minor can be prosecuted for a felony offense. Further, a minor who sexts a selfie also commits a felony under the law.
State law penalizes both sending and receiving sexual images of minors that are obscene or sexually oriented or that portray nudity. While the law presumes the sender or creator of the content knows of its illegal character, the prosecutor must prove some level of knowledge on the part of the recipient to support a criminal prosecution for possession of child pornography.
The penalty for creating or sending obscene, sexually oriented, or nude images of minor is a second-degree felony and punishable by two to eight years in prison.
Offenses for possession of such images range from a third- to a fifth-degree felony, with the harshest punishments reserved for repeat offenders and offenses involving obscene or sexually oriented images. A third-degree felony carries a punishment ranging from nine months to five years in prison. People convicted of fourth- and fifth-degree felonies face six to 18 months’ prison time.
(Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2901.21, 2907.01, 2907.321, 2907.322, 2907.323, 2929.14, 2950.01 (2019); State v. Young, 525 N.E.2d 1363 (Ohio S. Ct. 1988); State v. Tooley, 872 N.E.2d 894 (Ohio S. Ct. 2007).)
Acts relating to sexting can also be prosecuted under Ohio’s laws that prohibit endangering children and disseminating harmful material to children. Similar to child pornography laws, these statutes don’t distinguish between acts committed by adults and by minors. Like an adult, a minor can be prosecuted for endangering or otherwise harming another minor.
Encouraging a minor to be photographed nude or in an obscene or sexually oriented manner is a second-degree felony punishable by a prison term of two to eight years. To be convicted, an offender must have known or been in a position where he or she reasonably should have known the content of the material. (Ohio Rev. Code § 2919.22 (2019).)
Ohio law also prohibits sending “harmful” or obscene material to, or sharing it with, a minor. Harmful material includes images showing nudity, sexual conduct, or sexual activity that are considered “indecent” (but not necessarily “obscene”).
A violation is a first-degree misdemeanor. But, if the material shown or sent to the minor was obscene, the penalty increases to a fifth-degree felony. Fourth-degree felony penalties apply when obscene material is shown or sent to a minor younger than 13. (Ohio Rev. Code § 2907.31 (2019).)
In Ohio, adults must register as sex offenders for convictions of child pornography laws and child endangerment laws.
A court may also order a minor age 14 or older to register as a sex offender for committing these and other sex offenses. Ohio’s laws regarding juvenile sex offender registration and notification (JSORN) are complex, with various implications based on the offender’s age, prior record, and current offense. It’s best to consult an attorney if you have questions about JSORN.
(Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2950.01, 2152.191, 2152.82, 2152.831 (2019).)
Sexting cases involving offenders younger than 18 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.
Minors who are 14 or older and charged with a felony can be transferred to Ohio’s adult court and face adult penalties.
(Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2152.10, 2152.12, 2152.19 (2019).)
Any charges that stem from a sexting-related crime—child pornography, child endangerment, or disseminating harmful material to a minor—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 January 10, 2020