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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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Filed Under: child porn, law enforcement, police, sexting, teenagers


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Oct 2014 @ 4:29am

    Re:

    I wish you luck with installing old windows software on mobiles phones.

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