from the 'light-touch'-of-a-prosecutor's-bludgeon dept
Child porn laws continue to be used stupidly by state prosecutors to punish teens for consensual behavior. The ACLU has entered a case on behalf of a 14-year-old who sent explicit photos of herself to another teen. This teen then sent the photos to others. At some point, the state decided to step in. What the teen did was demonstrably stupid, but should it be criminal?
Using the law to set an example and shame some teenagers undermines the seriousness and intent of child pornography laws.
Minnesota statute 617.247 clearly states that its intent is to “protect minors from the physical and psychological damage caused by their being used in pornographic work depicting sexual conduct which involves minors.” Yet it is the state, not Jane that is doing the victimizing.
“I’m not a criminal for taking a selfie,” stated Jane Doe. “Sexting is common among teens at my school, and we shouldn’t face charges for doing it. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’m going through.”
This is clearly a ridiculous reading of Minnesota’s law. The law can’t “protect” Jane Doe from taking sexually explicit photos of herself — not unless this is the prosecutor’s idea of “protection.” If anyone else had taken the photos, Jane Doe would be the victim of child pornography production.
Even more ridiculously, Jane Doe and the teen she sent the photos to would have been in the clear if they’d limited their interaction to sexual intercourse.
Minnesota statutory rape law is violated when a person has consensual sexual intercourse with an individual under age 16, although it is raised to 18 when the offender is an authority figure. If the younger party is 13-15, their partners must be no more than 2 years older, and children under 13 may only consent to those less than 36 months older.
Although it is possible this prosecutor may have decided to wield this law just as badly.
Because there is no such “Romeo and Juliet law” in Minnesota, it is possible for two individuals both under the age of 16 who willingly engage in intercourse to both be prosecuted for statutory rape, although this is rare.
As the ACLU points out in its brief [PDF], the prosecution of Doe serves no conceivable definition of “justice.” It doesn’t take a child predator off the street and it requires Doe to register as a sex offender even if she pleads to a lesser charge. It robs the term “production” of any meaning by stripping it of context, treating the willing production of explicit material BY a minor as equivalent to the non-consensual production of child pornography by an adult pedophile. The lack of an exploited victim means the prosecutor shouldn’t have a legal basis for the prosecution.
But here we are, watching the state of Minnesota attempt to turn someone who took pictures of herself into a criminal. The National District Attorneys Association has suggested prosecutors limit pursuit of teen sexting cases and to deploy a “light touch” in those they do choose to pursue. But the prosecutor isn’t interested in following the NDAA’s suggestions. As Scott Greenfield points out, leaving sensitive issues like this up to prosecutors rarely works out well for the public.
The problem with relying on prosecutorial discretion to clean up bad laws, to not use the bludgeon in ways that no one really wanted, is that it’s prosecutorial discretion. The prosecutor can choose to use a “light hand,” or come down hard. We might disagree with his choice, but the choice is his, not ours. That’s what discretion means. If the prosecutor, for whatever reason, chooses to beat a teen into submission, he can. If the elements of the crime cover her conduct, then it’s a crime and she’s a criminal. That it’s stupid isn’t the point. This is law.
The law may be stupid but we can apparently always count on some prosecutors to be even stupider. There are a wealth of options available to deter Does from sexting in the future — none of which involve criminal charges or sex offender registration. Parents, family members, schools, community groups… all of these can provide guidance for teens without having to involve law enforcement or a prosecutor’s lack of discretion.