Law could change penalty for racy texts
By LPR Staff
Young people caught in the crossfire of the State’s current child pornography laws could see new leniency under a bill being introduced in the Texas Senate by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and supported by Attorney General Greg Abbott.
In the Digital Age, the time-honored game “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” has tu
rned into a felony – namely, production and/or distribution of child pornography. A nationwide spike in the practice known as “sexting,” the taking and sending of nude or partially nude photographs via computer or cell phone, is causing more than social anxiety. In some circles, it has caused legal trouble up to and including felony charges for teens with no criminal intent in mind.
“Currently, the only law that covers this issue is possession of child pornography which requires a person, upon conviction, to register as a sex offender,” Caldwell County District Attorney Trey Hicks said last week. “While we have not seen many cases involving “sexting” teens here in Caldwell County, it is reasonable to believe that in such types of cases the punishment does not fit the crime.”
Hicks said he would be in support of the legislation, which seeks to reduce “sexting” to as minor a charge as a Class C Misdemeanor, which would generally carry a penalty similar to a traffic ticket. However, he noted, the “devil is in the details,” and he said he was concerned about how the offense would be defined, and whether penalties would be increased for actions taken with malice.
“What happens if a minor sends an inappropriate picture to [an adult], unsolicited, and then the minor goes to the police?” he said. “Or… for instance a boyfriend and girlfriend sending pictures to each other is one thing; what happens when an individual sends out a mass text with pictures to dozens of recipients as a prank or with [other] malice?”
Hicks said he was not confident the bill, introduced in the Senate earlier this month, would cover such issues.
Still, easing the penalties for minors might be a benefit to Texas youngsters, in a law that was meant to protect, rather than punish them, in the first place.
“The initial intent [of the ‘sexting law’] was to criminalize adult delivery or possession of child pornography via cellular phones,” said Dr. Jose Parra, Superintendent of the Lockhart Independent School District. “Although ‘sexting’ is not appropriate behavior for minors, I don’t necessarily believe that immediately criminalizing this inappropriate behavior on the part of minors is a good idea.”
Watson’s suggested legislation would still assess punishments for the behavior, including the Class C Misdemeanor charge and education for both the offender and his or her parents. However, it also allows a provision for the charges to be expunged, something that the current law does not address.
“Minors have a penalty, but it is not so severe that their record is permanently marked, and they have an opportunity to learn from the situation,” he said.
Like Hicks, Parra said he has not noted any particular problem with “sexting” among local youth, but said because students across Texas have grown “tremendously comfortable” in the use of texting and camera phone devices, he could see it being a problem for some schools, parents and legal systems.
Citing a 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy as a reason behind his support for the legislation, Abbott said more than 22 percent of teenage girls have likely electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves. Because of the prevalence of the behavior, he and Watson said they feel it was more important to educate students than to criminalize the behavior.
“This bill ensures that prosecutors – and, frankly, parents – will have a new, appropriate tool to address this issue,” Sen. Watson said. “It helps Texas laws keep up with technology and our teenagers.”
Sexting message senders have no control of their message’s ultimate distribution. Embarrassing or sexually explicit messages can be forwarded to other students and later spread quickly through a school or anywhere in the world.
Under current Texas law, anyone who transmits an explicit image of a teen can face felony charges of possessing or trafficking child pornography. As a result, children who send images of themselves and their friends face serious criminal repercussions.