More Cops Investigate More Teens 'Sexting.' Now What?

from the waste-of-limited-resources dept

For some reason, a Michigan Sheriff’s Department has gotten itself involved in a sexting incident.

An investigation into “sexting” of photographs between at least 31 teenagers in Rochester Community Schools is expected to take at least two more weeks, an Oakland County Sheriff’s captain said Thursday…

Capt. Michael Johnson of the Rochester Hills substation said cell phones confiscated from suspected students — 24 girls and 7 boys, ages 14 to 16 — have been turned over to the department’s computer crimes section for forensic review to determine who sent photos, who was photographed, who received them and if they were shared with others.

Similar concerns are being expressed by others in the community.

Meanwhile, an attorney for a Rochester Hills student and another involved in a similar investigation in Romeo schools, said the activity is much more widespread and she has heard the number is likely double that under investigation.

Attorney Shannon Smith said Michigan State Police are investigating reports of about 10 incidents in the Romeo school system unrelated to the Rochester cases.

“This is happening everywhere, it’s over the top,” Smith said. “I have been contacted by schools and parents elsewhere in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties who have found similar photos on their children’s cellphones and want to know what to do about it.

The reason for police involvement — beyond the slim chance that it could net them some cheap child porn busts, thanks to existing laws being applied badly — is left unstated. Apparently, the discovery of suggestive and/or explicit photos couldn’t be left up to the students and their parents to handle. Instead, somebody will need to be punished for something that appears to be incredibly common and often wholly voluntary.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department has already confiscated 31 phones. “Ten incidents” unrelated to these 31 cases are being investigated by the Michigan State Police. With any luck, these investigations will continue to turn up even more phones, containing more evidence, and so on, until… well, until what, exactly?

Well, possibly until the shock at how common this behavior is passes and is replaced with the logistic realities of the situation, as happened to Chief Deputy Donald Lowe of the Louisa County (VA) Sheriff’s Dept.

[L]ouisa County High School was transformed into a crime scene, which it remained for the next month. Police cars sat parked at the school’s entrance, and inside, a few deputies who reported to Lowe began interviewing kids—starting with girls they recognized in the pictures and boys who had followed the accounts. […] For the most part, the kids were “more than cooperative,” Lowe says. One person would give up 10 names. The next would give up five, and so on.

But pretty soon this got to be a problem. Within an hour, the deputies realized just how common the sharing of nude pictures was at the school. “The boys kept telling us, ‘It’s nothing unusual. It happens all the time,’ ” Lowe recalls. Every time someone they were interviewing mentioned another kid who might have naked pictures on his or her phone, they had to call that kid in for an interview. After just a couple of days, the deputies had filled multiple evidence bins with phones, and they couldn’t see an end to it. Fears of a cabal got replaced by a more mundane concern: what to do with “hundreds of damned phones. I told the deputies, ‘We got to draw the line somewhere or we’re going to end up talking to every teenager in the damned county!’ ”

So, at some point, an arbitrary line will be drawn to end the investigation. Charges may be handed down, if only to justify the use of police resources. High school students on the wrong end of the age of consent may find themselves facing child pornography charges. Students more than an arbitrary number of years removed from the age of subjects of the photos in their possession may end up similarly charged.

The temptation is to handle it as a criminal offense, hence the initial instinct of the Louisa County Sheriff’s Dept. to view it as a “cabal” or “ring” before it became apparent that there was no unified, sinister force compelling this prolific creation of explicit photos. But despite realizing that trying to combat this as a criminal venture was fruitless, they still use a ridiculously skewed term when discussing sexting.

“I really don’t like the word sexting,” says Michael Harmony, the commander of the southern-Virginia branch of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which covers Louisa County. The term he makes his investigators use is self-production, which is law-enforcement-speak for when minors produce pictures of themselves that qualify as child porn.

Harmony may not be looking to press criminal charges against “self-producers,” but phrasing it in this manner makes it clear he’s willing to pursue anyone else in possession of this so-called child pornography. Law enforcement entities in other states view it the same way and have pressed (along with concerned parents groups and educators) for the creation of laws that make sexting a crime. In doing so, they have completely subverted common sense.

[I]n most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police.

Even if these law enforcement agencies decide there’s nothing in this pile of cell phones for them, there’s still a chance an aggressive prosecutor will still look for something he or she can make stick — punishing the children… for the children.

If Lowe made an arrest, the case would land with Rusty McGuire, the main prosecutor for Louisa County. McGuire wouldn’t talk with me about this situation specifically, but he expressed his concern more generally about nude pictures of minors landing in the wrong hands: “What do you do? Turn a blind eye? You’re letting teenagers incite the prurient interest of predators around the country,” fueling a demand that “can only be met by the actual abuse of real children.”

So, to keep teens from being abused by sexual predators, we need to smack them around with the same laws meant to target sexual predators? McGuire pushes a threat that exists only in his mind — one that turns a mostly consensual and incredibly common act into something that has to be addressed by the full extent of the law (“turn a blind eye?”). Failure to do so tips the balance in favor of child predators, who will only be able to satisfy themselves with actual abusive acts. McGuire was praised here at Techdirt earlier this year for his emphasis on education over enforcement when it comes to students sexting, but a few months removed from the positive Slate profile and he’s conjuring up law enforcement’s favorite boogeyman to justify law enforcement’s intrusion into students’ personal lives.

Two different law enforcement entities in Michigan are wading into this situation now, armed with enough info to make headlines but little more. Soon, they’ll be swimming in cell phones and trying to find a punishment that fits the supposed crime — or more accurately, trying to find a crime that meets their desire to see someone punished for a bunch of (mostly) consensual behavior.

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Comments on “More Cops Investigate More Teens 'Sexting.' Now What?”

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Deputy Dickwad says:

Move along citizen, nothing to see here!

They are calling it an “Investigation” ’cause those lame state troopers in Commiefornia got caught playing the hot arrestee sexting “Game”. They ruined it for all of us! Jerks. Now we have to make it look like an “Investigation” or else.

So effing stupid.

Here is what I want to know.

How long until we can get back to the good olde days of shooting you shit heads that don’t respect the badge, taking your stuff when we want it, and getting blown on the side of the road as a favor to you, so you don’t have to go to jail and do it for a living for a few years?

Oh yeah, nevermind!


Anonymous Coward says:

watch 'child' porn, get paid

Tim, you may have completely missed the main point here, and that is many of these cops might be drawn to “investigating” these cases because it gives them an excuse to look at porn picks while getting paid for it.

And let’s be honest, it’s not as if cops never collect and distribute cell-phone pictures, now is it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Enforcement of adult laws into areas of technology they were never meant to go in often does not result in the desired outcome. They instead result in contempt of the law.

Sexting has been attempted to be made out to be taking advantage of juveniles. But it is not adults that are doing that it is juveniles themselves among themselves. Adult protection laws do not work in this application. It just makes kids criminals for naturally inquisitive minds growing into adulthood.

Sexuality is part of human nature. Without it mankind has no future. You can’t wall it off when it is everywhere in ads, stories, movies, music, etc and then tell kids it doesn’t exist. They know better. In this case the law is wrong and it is a bad law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Is there a lack of real police work?

I mean, are all the rapes, homicides, assaults and other violent crimes solved? Is that why these alleged “police officers” have sufficient spare time to intimidate, bully, and harass kids?

Or is it that real police is just too hard? You know, it requires actual thinking and investigation. I’m sure it’s much easier to abuse due process and intimidate kids and confiscate their phones and make a big show of their power than it is to tackle difficult cases that take years of work and don’t yield flashy headlines.

I’m just surprised that they didn’t roll up to the school with a SWAT team in an MRAP.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: SImple anwers to simple questions

“How about: inform the parents of the involved kids and then let them handle it?”

But isn’t the whole point of government that ordinary people simply can’t “handle” their own problems and need state intervention?

I say throw all the kids into the foster system, and let their parents weep. That’ll show ’em!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Lock them all up until they are 18!!!
Oh wait, thats what school was for.

Imagine if there wasn’t such stigma and taboo about genitalia, we taught them proper names & terms, and were honest that sometimes they will feel tingles and might want to do something about it.

But instead we pretend it doesn’t exist, and legislate away having to have difficult talks with kids.

The curiosity will ALWAYS be there, and they will ALWAYS find a way to satisfy that curiosity.

What we have been doing for centuries is not working, will not work, and continues to fail miserably. Rather than give kids criminal records & sex offender status for wanting to see a boob, perhaps it really is time to stop the moral panics and pretending it doesn’t exist.

If you remove the mystery, it is less likely they will be that curious.
If you tell them the risks, it is more likely you won’t end up grandparents before your child’s graduation.

Or we can just take away all of the cell phones, and raise another generation of kids who don’t understand sex beyond scrambled bits of Cinemax scrambled softcore.

Heywood Djablomi says:

What an eye-opener

So the main source of child pornography is the children themselves.

What a wakeup call this article was to me, especially the part about “…High school students on the wrong end of the age of consent may find themselves facing child pornography charges. Students more than an arbitrary number of years removed from the age of subjects of the photos in their possession may end up similarly charged.”

Yes these laws are definitely being applied “for the children”

I become more convinced that prohibiting the possession of anything is the wrong thing to do.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“while its legal to have sex at 16”

Be sure to check your state laws before giving them this advice. In my state, it’s not legal at all. If either or both people are under 18, it’s statutory rape. If the two people are within 5 years of each other in age, than can be introduced as a mitigating factor in criminal court, but it’s still in violation of the law.

024601 says:

Any word on what the management and oversight of these photos is once they get into the hands of the cops? Does it end up just being some fifty year old deputy sitting in his office, scrolling through compromising photos of minors while chugging coffee and eating donuts? This is supposed to be better than someone without a badge doing the exact same thing?

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