Can teens who sext be charged with a crime in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania has laws on the books that specifically address juveniles who possess and share sexually explicit images of other minors.

Last year, a Pennsylvania high school was involved in an investigation concerning sexting among juveniles. According to Penn Live, law enforcement officers issued search warrants for students' mobile devices after learning that they may have been sharing explicit images of each other.

The district attorney in Cumberland County stated that if any charges were to be brought against these students, they would likely be summary offenses or misdemeanors. This is due to how the law addresses juveniles and explicit images, a statute that all teens and parents should know and understand.

What the law says

In 2012, the Pennsylvania General Assembly amended the state's sexual offense code to address minors and sexually explicit images. Typically, people who knowingly distribute or disseminate these images of minors are guilty of a sexual offense, often a first-degree felony. However, juveniles who take images of themselves and distribute those, or juveniles who receive and possess images from another minor may only be charged with a summary offense.

The law goes on to state that if a juvenile has an image of another juvenile and then disseminates that image, the charges may be more severe. This is especially true in cases in which the possessor of the image is disseminating it with the intention of harassing or intimidating the person in the image.

The consequences

Under House Bill 815, the law that addresses sexting, a juvenile charged with a summary offense could simply face mandatory participation in a program seeking to educate youth about the dangers of sexting. Upon completing the program, any record of the arrest would be expunged.

However, the bill does permit prosecutors to bring criminal charges against teens who are malicious when sharing explicit images. This could result in a second degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by imprisonment.

Preventing sexting

Parents may understandably have concerns about their children engaging in explicit activity. Speaking with teens about the consequences of sexting is important, as it can help deter them from the behavior. Connect Safely, an organization that promotes smart use of social spaces and mobile devices, advises parents to try to get teenagers to understand how it would feel to have pictures of themselves up for public consumption. The organization states that there can be psychological and social consequences to these kinds of activities, including anxiety, social isolation and even depression.

Even though the consequences for some instances of sexting may not seem harsh, it is a dangerous line to walk alone. People in Pennsylvania who wish to understand more about this issue should speak with a criminal defense attorney.