March 31, 2017

The Legal Perils of Juvenile Sexting

by James and Jon Tyack, The Tyack Law Firm Co., L.P.A.

Everyone knows that with great power comes great responsibility, this is also the case with cell phones. In Ohio, it is unlawful to create, reproduce, publish, deliver, disseminate, display, exhibit, present, provide, photograph, film, develop, transfer, possess or even view pictures containing obscenity, sexual activity or nudity involving minors.

Such behavior is a felony, with most infractions qualifying as a second degree felony under the law. Second degree felonies for juveniles are punishable by a commitment to the Department of Youth Services, house arrest, electronic monitoring, day reporting, community service, curfew, mandatory treatment and even removal from the home and placement in foster care. Although many of these sanctions are naturally viewed as extreme when kids are simply being kids engaging in the 21st Century version of spin the bottle, many children and parents do not understand the potential consequences of sexting.

Unfortunately, it is clear that the law does not presently comport with the broader community sense of fairness or proportionality. The General Assembly needs to readdress this issue and modify the law to amend the legal consequences for juveniles caught using their smart phones inappropriately. To be sure, the law must protect children from the long term consequences that come from having pictures of themselves floating around on the internet for all of eternity. But the process of improving the law in this area begins with children and their families understanding the potential consequences for such behavior under the law as it exists today.

Additionally, the law does not provide a defense for kids who share pictures of other kids their same age; a minor who shares a naked picture of themselves also violates the law. However, the consequences do not end at the Courthouse steps.

Under Ohio Law, this kind of behavior may also subject kids to being labeled as sex offenders. For children ages 14 and 15, Courts have discretion to decide whether the child is a sex offender. But, for children who are 16 and 17 years old, the classification as a “sex offender” is mandatory. The level of classification for juvenile offenders, as determined by the Juvenile Court, ranges from 10 years to the rest of their lives. These reporting requirements can truly derail a young person’s life, compromising the ability to attend college, obtain employment, or even secure a lease for an apartment. While provisions in the law do exist to allow a Juvenile Court to modify, reduce or even eliminate the sexual offender classification at a later time, kids and families do not want to take the chance that their son or daughter may end up with the sex offender label.

To read up on some practical and legal steps you can take to ensure your child is not engaged in juvenile sexting, check back in on our May 12 issue of Legal Connections.