Very few people would attempt to justify child pornography. It is something that cruelly victimizes minors and can injure them both physically and emotionally. Moreover, it is something that is often associated with child trafficking.
Because of this, it isn’t at all surprising that both state and federal governments have created specific laws banning child pornography, or that stopping crimes associated with it is a priority for just about every law enforcement agency. Or that those convicted – and often merely just accused – of participating in child pornography in some way, shape, or form, tend to be judged very harshly in the court of public opinion, branded as cruel, horrible deviants that deserve little sympathy.
Now imagine that your minor teenager is charged with this crime. For voluntarily sending out a sexually explicit image. Of themselves.
This may sound far-fetched – insane, even. However, it actually happened in Rice County at the beginning of 2018, and according to the laws of our state, it could happen again.
In this post, we’re going to detail what happened in that case and go over the child pornography laws of our state and how they apply to sexting.
How a 14-Year-Old Minnesota Girl Got a Felony Child Pornography Charge
Imagine this situation. A 14-year-old girl is Snapchatting with a boy she likes. Like many teens these days, she decides to send him an explicit image – a “sext.” After the boy forwards her image to classmates, authorities find out. She gets charged. With felony distribution of child pornography.
That’s essentially what happened in the Rice County case. A 14-year-old girl was facing 10 years of registering as a sex offender in Minnesota. For sending a “sext” of herself.
The penalties for felony distribution of child pornography were created for adults who exploit and harm children, and any rational person could see that they were absolutely absurd in this case. Thankfully, the judge in the case agreed.
A few months after it was brought to court, the case was dismissed, with the judge saying he couldn’t see how “subjecting [the juvenile] to registering as a sexual offender would protect her or teach her anything but that the justice system is cruel and unjust.”
Another mercy? The minor’s name was never revealed in news sources, so luckily she does not have to face the embarrassment of appearing in Google search results when she applies for a job or college.
Sexting Laws in Minnesota: Could This Happen to Your Child?
Should the prosecutor have charged the girl with child pornography in the first place? When you consider the context, it seems absurd. However, Minnesota law has a very low tolerance for the creation or distribution of sexually explicit images of minors.
Specifically, our statute states that “it is…the intent of the legislature to penalize possession of pornographic work depicting sexual conduct which involve minors or appears to involve minors…A person who disseminates pornographic work to an adult or a minor, knowing or with reason to know its content and character, is guilty of a felony.”
The law does not make exceptions for teens who are sexting. In fact, later on in the statute, the law explicitly says that “consent to sexual performance by a minor or the minor’s parent, guardian, or custodian is not a defense to a charge of violation of this section.”
If rational minds had not prevailed and the case did go to court, the girl would have had little grounds to argue that she did not commit a crime. According to the law as written, she did – it’s just that the context of her violation makes the associated charges and penalties utterly ridiculous.
What exactly are those penalties?
Consequences for Minors Who Sext in Minnesota
Let’s say the girl went to court, fought the charges, and lost. Then what?
She would have faced up to 10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines for creating the image. If her classmates were charged with distributing the image, they would face similar penalties. Additionally, as we touched on above, anyone who is found guilty on child pornography charges has to register as a Minnesota sex offender.
One more time, because this bears repeating – under the laws of our state, the girl was guilty of her charge. Moreover, the boy she sent the image to and all the students who received and kept the image are also guilty of crimes. Minnesota law as currently written puts all of these minors at risk – even though the original image was created with the subject’s consent and was sent to another minor.
Is subjecting minors to years behind bars and even more time as a registered sex offender really protecting these children from anything?
The answer, of course, is no, and it is something that our legislature needs to fix as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is also the law that we live under right now, so it is vital that both parents and teens understand the potential consequences.
Minnesota Parents: Talk to Your Children about Sexting
If you are a parent, you might be rightfully nervous about how innocent sexting could net your child similar charges. Even if you don’t want to believe it, your girl or boy might be engaging in this type of communication.
A 2012 study from Massachusetts revealed that 30% of 18-year-olds had sent sexts during their time in high school. That was over half a decade and countless new social media apps ago. How much more connected are the kids of today? How much more time do they spend glued to their screens and engaging in online activities you know little about?
As awkward as it may be to have a chat about sexting (and it will be awkward), your kids need to know what kind of trouble they could be getting themselves into. Even if they do not send “sexts” themselves, they could face charges for receiving sexts and keeping them.
Felony charges and a spot on the sex offender registration could keep your child from getting a good job. From going to their first (or second, or third) choice college. From having the future they want for themselves.
Bite the bullet and have a conversation to ensure that your child protects their future.
About the Author:
Christopher Keyser is a Minneapolis-based criminal and DWI defense attorney known for fighting aggressively for his clients and utilizing innovative tactics to get the most positive results. He has been featured in numerous media outlets due to the breadth and depth of his knowledge, and recognized as a Minnesota Super Lawyers Rising Star (2014–2015), a Top 100 Trial Lawyer (2013–2015), and a Top 40 Under 40 Attorney (2013–2015).