How Underage Sexting Laws Have Evolved to Hold Juveniles Responsible… or Have They?

Teen and ‘tween ‘sexting’ has become an unfortunate and dangerous component of the digital world of youth and adolescence. In response to this phenomenon, the Florida Legislature put together a set of laws drafted, so they thought, to differentiate between the exchange of graphic images between two juveniles and the trafficking of child pornography between vulnerable children and lascivious adults.

The former is designed to alert teenagers to the dangers of this type of behavior and includes a $60.00 fine and a sentence of community service. The latter can result in first degree felony charges, lifelong registry as a sex offender and many other life-altering penalties.

However, as one Court of Appeals court recently held, the ‘sexting’ law as drafted leaves gaping holes for prosecutors, making it virtually impossible to convict and sentence a juvenile perpetrator under this law. If you or your child is facing a recent charge under Florida’s current ‘sexting’ statute or you need help with a juvenile law charge, please contact Fowler Law Group right away for assistance.

The Florida Legislature Commits Major Drafting Blunder

Florida’s teenage sexting law is divided into three categories: first time offenders, second time offenders and third and subsequent offenders. The first group is given the most lenient charge of a non-criminal citation, with a proverbial slap-on-the-wrist punishment as (described above).

The second group faces a possible misdemeanor conviction, punishable by up to no more than one year in jail. The third group faces possible felony charges, which could lead to hefty fines, incarceration and possible enrollment on the sex offender registry.

The law, on its face, seems fair and designed to address the notion that teenagers may seek to experiment in ways not previously contemplated by other laws – namely, through the transmission of images via private messaging and text messages.

Lawmakers seeking to alleviate the imposition of misdemeanor or felony charges, sex offender registration and possible destruction of the children’s lives, opted to give first-time offenders the opportunity to avoid major penalties. However, in practice, the law is virtually useless, as prosecutors are having a difficult time enforcing and punishing a non-law.

Court Orders Lawmakers Back to the Drawing Board

In a recent case involving a minor having sent a picture text of her genitals to a classmate, prosecutors initially believed the conviction would be a legal “slam dunk.” That is, until the language of the sexting law was put into practice and problems began to emerge across multiple facets of the case.

First, Florida’s criminal courts do not maintain jurisdiction over these types of non-criminal civil infractions, which is exactly how the legislature classified first-offense sexting. In other words, there are no criminal courts available to hear evidence or impose a ruling.

Secondly, the subsequent and more serious offenses awaiting a second and subsequent offender are essentially legally moot. If there is no possible way to prosecute a first-time offender under the law as drafted, there can never be a second, third, or subsequent offender either. Whoops!

In its holding, the court explained that “it is up to the legislature to draft statutes to effectuate the procedure for prosecuting a first offense of sexting. The courts ‘are not at liberty to add words to statutes that were not placed there by the Legislature.’” Stated another way, until the Legislature clears up the drafting blunders in the current sexting statute, the underage digital transmission of lewd and inappropriate images is technically and practically legal in the state of Florida – a notion in need of a quick and expeditious rewrite.

Contact Fowler Law Group for Help With Your Juvenile Law Case

If you are facing a juvenile law violation, or your child was recently arrested and charged with a juvenile law crime, please contact the Fowler Law Group right away for assistance. You can reach our Bradenton office by calling (941) 900-3100.

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