Maryland Legislators Pass Bill That Would Keep Most Teens From Being Prosecuted For Sexting

from the more-helping,-less-hurting dept

It’s been a delayed reaction, but legislators are finally trying to do something about the horrific outcomes that result from advances in technology colliding with laws that have been on the books for decades. Smartphones are omnipresent and teens are using them just like adults use them. Sexting — the sending of explicit images to willing recipients — shouldn’t be illegal. And yet it is because some of those participating in this consensual distribution of explicit images are minors.

Operating under the belief that no one engages in sexual acts until they reach the age of consent, law enforcement has managed to turn this form of communication into a lifetime of misery for participants. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of using child porn laws to prosecute minors for sexting is the fact that actual sexual acts would be legal under the same set of laws.

Rather than allow parents to handle sexting by minors, prosecutors have stepped in to turn consenting teens into sexual predators, even if they’ve done nothing more than send images of themselves to another teen. There’s a massive logical leap that needs to be made to turn a teen photographing their own body into their own child pornographer, but cops and prosecutors have been willing to bridge that gap over reality to prematurely end these teens’ lives. Charges stemming from child porn charges — even when the teen has done nothing but “exploit” themselves — come with a lifetime of downsides, thanks to sex offender statutes.

Maryland’s legislature is trying to mitigate the damage done by existing laws — ones passed by legislators who could not have possibly foreseen teens willingly (and easily) distributing sexual images amongst themselves. The absence of any actual child pornographer isn’t something addressed by child porn laws, so the Maryland legislature has decided to make it a bit more difficult for prosecutors to convert questionable judgment calls by teens to criminal charges.

A bill that defines how to handle juveniles charged with sexting in Maryland passed in the House with a wide majority on Wednesday.

The bill, which passed on a vote of 131-8, doesn’t legalize sexting for juveniles, but it defines certain cases that aren’t a part of child pornography laws.

In addition to defining certain cases, HB0180 states that a juvenile in violation would not be committed to custody — unless there are extraordinary circumstances — and would not be subject to register as a sex offender.

It’s not great. (But it’s still pretty good.)

“Great” would be terminating any prosecutorial options for the consensual sharing of explicit images between teens. But it’s better than what’s out there now, which allows prosecutors who’ve never exercised discretion in a positive way from railroading teens into a lifetime of sex offender list misery.

What it does do is blunt the most harmful edges of existing law. Non-consensual sharing would still be a crime, but no teen can be considered a producer or possessor of child porn unless they’re over the age of 18. It also considers sexting to be a crime if the participants are more than four years apart in age, something that aligns sexting provisions with state law on consensual sexual acts between teens.

But there are still concerns. First, the bill [PDF] may have been passed but there’s no guarantee it will become law. Second, it still gives prosecutors a lot of leeway when it comes to prosecution of edge cases. But hopefully it will deter the sort of insanity that inspired this legislation.

All three House bills were drafted in response to a case in 2019 involving a teenage student who sent an illicit video of herself with a male to two of her friends, a video that was distributed by one of the friends to the rest of their high school.

Instead of helping, a school resource officer believed the teenager committed a crime, Lisae Jordan, executive director and counsel of Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, wrote in testimony to lawmakers.

The student was charged in Juvenile Court with child pornography and obscenity.

It really takes a sick mind to view someone who’s being subjected to abuse as a criminal. But that’s just how some people think. This bill, if passed, will prevent idiots like this from treating the victims of non-consensual sharing of intimate images from being treated as child pornographers. Anything that strips discretion from people who’ve proven incapable of exercising it wisely is better than doing nothing.

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Comments on “Maryland Legislators Pass Bill That Would Keep Most Teens From Being Prosecuted For Sexting”

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20 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Convicted teens might still have to register elsewhere

One of the most confusing aspects of sex offender registry laws is that every state has their own laws with different requirements AND they count convictions (and often any guilty plea, even if it isn’t prosecuted) from other states for vioations of a law that is "substantially similar" to the residential state’s laws.

As such, if a teen is convicted (but not committed to an institution) of a child pornography charge in Maryland, then moves to Georgia, they will still be required to register, possibly for life, even if the judge declares they don’t have to. Many states don’t even consider an expungement a valid reason to be removed from the registry.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Considering the age of consent in Maryland is based on the ages of the participants, it is perfectly legal for a 15yo to sleep with a 12yo https://www.peoples-law.org/age-consent

But heaven forbid if someone under 18 sends an image of themselves to their peer group. I can understand overzealous prosecutors going for this but you would think that judges would use some discretion.
School Resource Officers should really know the difference as they deal with teens all day long – funny that the SROs always seem to be more into punishment than education considering they work with schools

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Such an image would not be pornography, though I wouldn’t be shocked if that distinction was lost in the "justice" system.

Why would a person put themselves at risk by doing that, though? They could get an image off the internet instead, perhaps the infamous "Virgin Killer" album cover or something from a nudist forum, or the Traci Lords photos, or even actual exploitative child pornography.

Anonymous Coward says:

That is what is encryption is for. If I had children now, I would buy them samsung phones with encryption the "booby trap", as I like to call it, which causes the phone to wipe and reset after too many password attempts.

When I eventually have children, all my childrens’ phones will be Samsung models, all turned up to insane cop proof mode, so that if the phone is ever seized by an LEO, any attempt to brute force the password will result in the phone wiping itself and doing a factory reset

There is no law in any of the 50 states that I could be prosecuted under for doing that to stymie investigators. Neither myself, nor my children, could be prosecuted for doing that to cause evidence to by wiped from their phones.

when I go on road trips to Canada’s Wonderland, I have my phone dialed up to that level when going through Michigan, because of the asset forfeiture laws there.

If they should enter a failed password too many times, and the phones wipes itself and resets, there is no law in Michigan they could come later and prosecute me under.

That "booby trap mode", in Samsung J7 and S8 phones does not break the law in any of the 50 states, or at the federal level. After 15 failed password tries, the phones wipes itself and resets, meaning anything that was there, is gone, and cannot be recovered, even by the best police forensic software.

Also the phone will require your Google password before it can be set up again, so the cops could only used a seized

If you go on road trips, like I like to, having a phone with insane cop proof mode like that is a must, because you don’t know what may be on your phone they can used to muscle you into a plead deal.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"…maybe no need to continue posting it on every story having something to do with law enforcement, encryption, or phones."

Or maybe there is. Consider any journalist crossing borders. Even if you trust US authorities (which indicates a bit too much naivety these days) i can imagine there are plenty of reasons to be able to deny the cvontents of your phone to authorities in, say, guatemala, nicaragua, or mexico.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

" I just don’t see the value in presenting it to more or less the same audience over and over again."

Well, I may be dragging old injuries with me from my time as a DBA. I’m inclined to think that unless you regularly beat the audience over the head and neck with the basic guidelines and rules, you might as well toss the book of rules completely. 90% of your audience will forget lest forcefully reminded weekly.

And of course there’s always the chance there’s a new reader led this way by a crosspost on twitter or FB.

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