'Sexting' is no felony, bill says

'Dumb thing' shouldn't scar teens for years, lawmaker argues

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HARRISBURG -- Sexting, the practice of using a cell phone to transmit nude or sexually explicit photos, represents the triumph of technology over common sense, says a state legislator from Reading.

But while the practice, usually done by teenagers, seems foolish or risky at best, it shouldn't scar youths for years by saddling them with an arrest for a felony, as it does now, said Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. His committee will start the process to change that this week.

"A lot of these kids are teenagers and they do dumb things," he said. "All of us have done dumb things when we were kids. We want to stop this from being a felony. It could carry through the rest of their lives. They'll have to list a felony arrest on job applications."

A conviction for sexting "could result in a permanent [criminal] record and registration as a sex offender for a period or 10 years or more," said the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

"It only takes seconds to decide to take a photo and send a sexual image over a cell phone, but it could take a lifetime to erase the impact of that image," added association President Edward Marsico, who is the district attorney in Dauphin County, which includes Harrisburg.

While it's clear that juveniles shouldn't send sexually explicit photos via cell phone in the first place, he said, "As prosecutors, we'd rather not see the legal consequences for minors last so long."

So Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee will discuss House Bill 2189, introduced by Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, which would classify sexting by minors -- youths under 18 -- as a second-degree misdemeanor instead of a felony, as it now can be classified.

Actually, there is no crime currently called sexting, because the practice and the technology that makes it possible are so new, said Michael Piecuch, director of the PDDA.

A person who sends nude pictures by phone -- often of himself or herself -- now must be charged under the state's "open lewdness" law, a disorderly conduct statute or, most commonly, under child pornography laws.

This last category includes "creation or dissemination of images of children engaged in nudity or sexual activity," Mr. Piecuch said. But he added that the current statutes "are too blunt an instrument to address the problem of sexting by juveniles."

Mr. Marsico said the Grove bill "makes the right changes to Pennsylvania law regarding the sending of sexually explicit images by minors to minors," adding that it would "ensure that the law catches up with technology and hands down appropriate legal consequences."

However, a person is a minor only until he or she turns 18. Mr. Caltagirone said the law might have to be adjusted to also apply to youths who are somewhat older, noting that college students have been known to make foolish mistakes.

He said circumstances can get especially nasty if a young couple breaks up and one of them begins sending the nude photos of their ex-girlfriend or boyfriend to other people, as an act of spite or revenge.

"A lot of these kids haven't grown up enough to know what they're doing," he said. "We want some common sense to prevail."


Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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