When authorities discovered that a high school couple in Fayetteville, N.C., had sent each other nude selfies, the 16-year-olds had the potential to be branded sex offenders for life. The teens were accused of being both the victims of child pornography and the perpetrators of the crime. The legal system treated them as adults for purposes of prosecuting them, but considered them minors by deeming their selfies child pornography, reports the Associated Press. The case shows the quandary authorities face over sexting. Most states have yet to update child pornography laws to account for minors who are caught exchanging explicit selfies. The laws, some written decades ago, carry stiff penalties including prison time and a requirement to register as a sex offender.
“No one even imagined how easy it would be for anybody to have a little device in their pocket with pictures like this,” said Diana Graber of Cyberwise, a group that teaches online safety for parents and teachers. More than a dozen states have reduced penalties for minors convicted of sexting. Texas made sexting a misdemeanor in 2011 for teenagers 17 years or younger. The North Carolina case began last year when investigators were looking into a suspected statutory rape, said Sgt. Sean Swain of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. The 16-year-old boy wasn’t considered a suspect or witness, but authorities thought information about the case might be on his phone. Swain said the teen’s mother allowed them to search his phone without a warrant. After months of uncertainty for the teens, now 17, they struck deals in recent weeks to reduce the charges and give them a pathway to clearing their records. The boy was temporarily suspended from his high school football team, and the case has made national headlines.