OLYMPIA, Washington. Legislation aimed at deterring teenagers sending sexually explicit text from being charged under adult sex crimes laws has cleared legislation in Washington state.
The bill, passed late Wednesday evening, would create a new group of crimes specifically reserved for minors trapped with explicit images of other minors, trying to resolve what the legislature calls paradox in current law where even teenagers who report sexual acts in pictures or videos can potentially be charged with a crime themselves – and even forced to register as sex offenders.
A 2018 survey by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 22 states had passed laws that differentiated between juvenile and adult offenders with different characteristics.
Under Washington law, most new crimes would be classified as juvenile-only, a status that would exempt convicted juveniles from registration.
Sexting – a combination of the words “sex” and “SMS” – refers to sending explicit photos or videos through messaging services, a practice that has become popular with teenagers who grew up using cell phones.
“This is a law that was written to deal with child pornography at a time when nobody had a cell phone,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Redmond Democrat who voted for the Washington bill. “Nobody could imagine that we would live in the culture that we currently have and that our children actually do sexting.”
Not only is sexting part of a flirtation or romantic relationship for some teens, it has also developed into a bullying factor over time when minors lose control of images shared beyond romantic partners.
Under current Washington law, the laws criminalizing the sharing of such images by teenagers are the same as those originally written for adults for child pornography. This includes a broad language that prohibits the possession, production or sharing of explicit pictures of minors. As a crime, many child pornography crimes also require registration in the state’s public database of sex offenders – penalties that even critics of the bill may find too harsh.
Senator Mike Padden, a Republican from Spokane Valley, voted against the bill but said he could understand the basic situation he was trying to address.
“We may not approve of it, we might not like it, but we can understand where maybe two teenagers who are in a relationship are sending pictures,” he said, adding that it was “reasonable” to punish sexting reduce in some cases.
“But this bill is about far, far more than that,” said Padden.
The bill would create a separate set of offenses that only apply to offenders under the age of 18, making it an offense rather than a crime for a minor to exchange pictures of another minor, with the exception of pictures of some types of sexual activity.
Exchanging pictures of a child up to the age of 12 would remain a criminal offense, as would selling pictures of another minor, but under new criminal definitions applicable to minors only.
Padden and other Republicans said that was too broad.
Democratic supporters replied that the bill was limited in scope and aimed solely at catching minors sexting off the sex offender register.