Sexting an image of a minor—someone younger than 18—can result in serious penalties. In Washington, penalties for sexting images depend on who sent the sext, the age of the minor in the image, and the type of sexually explicit material depicted in the image.
"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.
Sexting between consenting adults (18 and older) is legal, as long as the images are of adults. However, Washington punishes sexting images of minors (those younger than 18) under its laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation of children. The law creates different crimes based on who is sexting the image—a minor or an adult.
Below are the crimes and penalties that apply in Washington for sexting images of minors.
The lowest offense level applies when a minor sexts a sexually explicit image of another minor age 13 or older. Misdemeanor penalties apply if the image shows the minor's genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or breasts. If the image depicts the minor in a sexual act, the penalty increases to a gross misdemeanor. (This law doesn't penalize minors for sending selfies or possessing sexually explicit images of minors age 13 or older.)
The law requires prosecutors to place first-time offenders of one of the above sexting crimes into diversion. Diversion provides an alternative to prosecution if the defendant successfully completes the terms of the agreement.
More severe penalties apply if a minor sexts or knowingly possesses a sexually explicit image of another minor younger than 13. These crimes are class B felonies. If the image depicts the minor in a sexual act, the crime is a first-degree offense. Second-degree penalties apply if the image shows a minor's genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or breasts.
Adult teens (18- and 19-year-olds) who sext images of minors also face felony penalties. Similar to the above offense, the crime is a first-degree offense when the image depicts a minor engaged in a sexual act; otherwise, it's a second-degree offense.
An adult convicted of a first- or second-degree offense is guilty of a class B felony and faces the possibility of up to ten years in prison and sex offender registration. During sentencing, the judge takes into consideration the severity (or degree) of the offense. First-degree offenses generally receive harsher penalties than offenses in the second-degree.
(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.20.021, 9.68A.050, 9.68A.053, 9.68A.070, 9A.44.128, 9A.44.130, 9A.44.143,13.40.080 (2022).)
An adult convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor can be required to register as a sex offender. Registration is in addition to any prison time or fine. And although it's less likely that a minor will have to register as a sex offender, it's still a possibility that should be discussed with an attorney.
(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9.94A.030, 9A.44.128, 9A.44.130, 9A.44.143 (2022).)
Any charges that stem from sexting involving minors or teens can result in very serious consequences for those involved. If you've been questioned by the police or charged with a sexting 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.