Sexting is the sending of sexually suggestive text messages or photographs by cell phone or other electronic devices. Among teenagers, sexting is often considered a form of flirting, but in addition to serious criminal charges, sexting can result in harassment, school discipline, and lasting harm to a teen’s reputation. Although there have been attempts in Ohio to pass a law specifically targeting teen sexting, lawmakers have so far been unsuccessful.
Instead, teens that take and share nude or sexual images of children under the age of 18 (including themselves) are prosecuted under Ohio’s child pornography laws. These laws, intended to prosecute adult predators, expose teens to serious consequences. For example, felony charges were brought against a fifteen-year-old girl for taking nude photos of herself with her cell phone and sending them to some of her high school classmates.
In Ohio, it is a crime to create, reproduce, advertise, buy, sell, or possess any obscene material or sexual material involving a minor (these crimes are called pandering, obscenity involving a minor, or pandering sexually oriented matter involving a minor). For example, a boy who uses a cell phone to photograph his girlfriend engaged in consensual sexual activity could be prosecuted for pandering. Generally, these laws are invoked when the images at issue are of children involved in sexual activity. Ohio has a specific law against possessing nude images of a child (see below).
(Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § § 2907.321, 2907.322.)
Child Pornography Under Federal Law
Child pornography may also be a crime under federal law. The Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children (PROTECT) Act of 2003 criminalizes producing, distributing, receiving, or possessing with intent to distribute any visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. (18 USCA § 1466A(a)(1).)
It is also a crime under Ohio’s laws to photograph or create or transfer an image of a nude minor, unless the minor’s parents have consented in writing and it is for a bona fide educational, religious, or other specified purpose. And it is also a crime to possess or view such materials unless it is for a specified legal purpose. For example, teen boys sharing nude or topless photos of teen girls with one another could be prosecuted under this law.
(Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2907.323.)
It is also a crime in Ohio to encourage a child be photographed nude or engaging in any sexual activity unless it is for a bona fide educational, religious, or other specified purpose. For example, a teen that encourages a friend to take a racy sexual photo could be convicted for child endangerment.
(Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2919.22.)
Under Ohio's laws, it is also a crime to share with children any material that is considered obscene or harmful to juveniles. A 13-year-old Ohio girl who sent nude photos of herself to a boy her age was charged with disseminating matter harmful to a juvenile.
(Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2907.31.)
Oftentimes, the non-legal consequences of sexting are just as serious as the legal consequences. The use of cell phones and social media means that insults, taunts, and private photos can now be quickly shared or made public. Jessica Logan, an Ohio teen, was harassed and taunted after her ex-boyfriend sent a nude photo of her to students at two local schools. She committed suicide shortly after she graduated from high school. After her death, Ohio lawmakers enacted a law, the Jessica Logan Act, requiring each school board to establish a policy prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and bullying, and providing for the suspension of students who engage in online harassment and cyber-bullying.
(Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 3313.666.)
Possessing child pornography is a classified as a fourth degree felony, punishable by six months in jail to 18 months in prison and a fine. Possessing a nude image of a child is a fifth degree felony, punishable by least six months (and up to one year) in jail and a fine. Child endangerment, and photographing or creating nude, obscene, or sexual images of children are second degree felonies, punishable by two to eight years in prison, and a fine. Disseminating harmful material may be a misdemeanor (punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine) or a fifth degree felony.
Teen sexting cases may be handled in juvenile court, which often allows judges to exercise greater discretion in sentencing. In at least one Ohio county, prosecutors have also established a diversion program for minors who are involved in sexting. Generally, diversionary programs allow children who successfully participate in education programs and sometimes probation to have the charges against them dropped. This way, kids can avoid a criminal conviction and sex offender registration.
(Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § § 2929.14, 2929.18, 2929.24, 2929.28.)
People in Ohio convicted of any crime related to sexual or nude images of children are required to register as sex offenders. In Ohio, registered sex offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of schools. Sex offenders must periodically provide local police with their address and other personal information and it is a crime to fail to register.
(Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § § 2950.01, 2950.031.)
If you or your child is charged with child pornography or any other crime as a result of teen sexting, you should talk to an Ohio criminal defense attorney immediately. A conviction for any crime, but particularly for a sex crime, can have serious consequences, including years in prison or a juvenile facility, and sex offender registration. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court, including whether your child’s case will be handled in juvenile court, and whether your child could be ordered to register as a sex offender. An experienced attorney can help you successfully navigate the criminal justice system and protect your rights.