Now the boy faces five counts of “sexual exploitation of a minor” and the girl faces unspecified charges. Laws intended to protect kids are being used to prosecute them.
Had these images gone undiscovered they’d likely have done no harm at all to these young people. But thanks to the authorities, the boy has now had his photograph and name––which I am withholding but is easily found––published in the local newspaper and broadcast on television. He has been suspended from his high school football team. For months, he has had to deal with the intense anxiety stoked by facing charges of this sort and the prospect of life as a registered sex offender.
The girl has not been named in the local press. Nevertheless, her parents, teachers and classmates surely know her situation. She is probably humiliated and anxious about the legal trouble that she is in. What is Cumberland County Sheriff Earl R. Butler thinking? Why would District Attorney Willian West decline to exercise prosecutorial discretion in a case like this? In other jurisdictions, authorities have exercised discretion in sexting cases. If the young man “is too young to send pictures of his own body, is he not also too young to be made a social pariah?” Robby Soave asks. “The photos were private, and remained that way, until the cops got hold of them. If there’s public humiliation here, police intervention is the cause.” Unless they’ve inexplicably withheld details from the public, law enforcement’s case seems like a clear display of awful judgment.
These authorities would hardly be the first adults to behave irresponsibly in a similar situation. In Virginia, police secured a warrant to take a 17-year-old to the hospital and forcibly induce an erection in order to see if he sexted a photo of his penis.
Although press attention prevented the warrant from being executed, it remains a troubling episode. As Radley Balko wrote in the Washington Post at the time, “to register their contempt for child exploitation and sex crimes, lawmakers have defined sex offenses so broadly that a teen sending an explicit photo to a boyfriend or girlfriend can qualify. Typically, when critics point out that a new law could be used in ways lawmakers never intended, supporters point to prosecutorial discretion. They argue that it’s ridiculous, even insulting, to suggest that a prosecutor would twist a law to bring charges against someone in ways the law clearly never intended — or that a judge would allow it. That police, a prosecutor’s office and a judge all saw nothing wrong with forcibly inducing an erection in order to pursue charges against a 17-year-old kid puts the lie to that argument.”
In 2013, authorities in San Diego told the local press that they intended to file charges against 30 high school and middle school students involved in a “sexting ring.”