For most teenagers, cell phones are practically appendages. Many text more than they talk. They use their phones to send texts containing photographs. They think little of the content.
Most times, it's innocent. But earlier this year nearly 30 students from five junior highs and three high schools in Davis County were investigated for sending sexually explicit photographs to cell phones of other teens. The cases pose challenges for prosecutors. Parents and school administrators have been reluctant to report the behavior because the conduct is defined as a felony under Utah law.
Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, has proposed legislation that would establish misdemeanor penalties for this conduct among teenagers. Prosecutors clearly need more tools to address this crime. This past week, one prosecutor told the Utah Legislature's Judiciary Interim Committee that there are basically two options under current Utah law: either charge these offenses as felonies or opt not to file charges. Neither is a particularly productive option when dealing with teenagers, because a felony conviction can brand them as a sex offender and not filing charges may give teens the impression that their conduct wasn't that bad.
Under Allen's proposal, teens under 16 could face a class B misdemeanor charge for sending pornographic materials. Teens 16 to 17 could face a class A misdemeanor charge. People 18 and older who solicit a younger person to send pornographic or harmful material could be charged with a third-degree felony.
While we agree that prosecutors need a misdemeanor-level charge to better address these offenses, establishing age distinctions between class A and class B raises some concerns. If a 17-year-old sends a pornographic image of his own body part to another person, he could conceivably face a harsher punishment than a 15-year-old who texts photographs taken surreptitiously of classmates in various states of undress in the locker room. Lawmakers may want to establish penalties based on conduct rather than age.
The Judiciary Interim Committee has taken no action on this proposal. Prosecutors obviously need more options to deal with this offense. With a few refinements, this proposed legislation could become a valuable tool in addressing this conduct.