FARMINGTON It may have only been intended as innocent flirtation among students, but the trading of nude and sexually explicit pictures between teens over cell phones has mushroomed into a full-scale criminal investigation, with at least 28 cases working their way through the Davis County Attorney's Office.
"That's just the tip of the iceberg," Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings told reporters on Monday. "This is far more widespread than even we know at this point in time. A couple of youngsters have told me everybody's doing it, everybody with a cell phone."
During a news conference at his office, Rawlings and one of his deputies updated the cases that span across five junior highs and three high schools in Davis County. He declined to reveal details about the cases, citing court rules about identifying juveniles.
The case began in January with a police investigation into a group of teenagers taking pictures of their breasts and genitals at Farmington Junior High and trading them with friends over cell phones. A parent of one student found the pictures and called police.
The investigations reached other schools as authorities said they followed pockets of "kids and cliques" in schools in West Bountiful, Farmington, Kaysville and elsewhere in the county. The picture-trading may have been consensual in most cases, but Rawlings said under Utah law it is technically considered child pornography.
"We want kids to know it's illegal," he said. "We want to let parents know that your child might be doing it or receiving it."
Most of the students who have been caught up in the law enforcement investigation will never be formally charged in 2nd District Juvenile Court. Instead, Rawlings said his office has been working with juvenile probation and the teens' parents to reach diversion agreements. Most will have to attend counseling, classes or perform community service. Others could face felony charges of either dealing in materials harmful to a minor or sexual exploitation of a minor in the coming weeks.
The Davis County Attorney's Office has come under criticism for pushing the issue, but Rawlings defended the actions, saying that had they done nothing it would have sent a message that it was acceptable behavior. In some cases, the photos were taken in a voyeuristic fashion or were used as exploitation. Some photos memorialized sex acts between teens.
"For the most part, it appears to be a mutual decision to engage in flirtatious behavior," said Deputy Davis County Attorney Ron Dunn. "But using ... cell phones, the Internet, raises it to a level of behavior that makes it a felony."
Law enforcement officers in other counties have contacted Davis County prosecutors for advice because they are pursuing similar investigations. Some parents were horrified when they discovered what was going on, Rawlings said."There's a lot of these parents that have taken the cell phones away from their kids or restricted the cell phones or made the decision that they're not going to have access to text messaging," he said.