Teen sexting prosecution prompts outrage

  • 10 July 2014
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Three teen boys hold cellphones.

On Wednesday the Washington Post reported on the case of a 17-year-old from Manassas, Virginia, who is facing felony charges for manufacturing and possessing child pornography after he allegedly texted nude images of himself to his 15-year-old girlfriend.

According to the boy's defence attorney, Jessica Harbeson Foster, prosecutors in the Washington-area Prince William County want to bolster their case by taking photos of the suspect's aroused penis and comparing it to the texted image using "special software".

She says the prosecutors have plans if the teen does not willingly comply.

"We just take him down to the hospital, give him a shot and then take the pictures that we need," Ms Foster says she was told.

She added that the police had already taken a photo of her client's flaccid penis, obtained despite his objections.

"The prosecutor's job is to seek justice," the attorney told the Post. "What is just about this? How does this advance the interest of the Commonwealth?"

It didn't take long for the Post story to go viral.

The case raises a number of challenging questions. Why was the girl, who allegedly started the string of explicit texted images, not also charged with child pornography? Should child pornography laws be applicable in cases of teenage sexting? Is it appropriate that, if convicted, the teen will have to register as a sex offender for life?

The forced-erection angle generated the most media outrage, however. Could a prosecutor really demand such an intrusive search? And could a judge really go along with it?

"Law enforcement officials in Prince William County, Va. have come up with a truly creative way to combat the dissemination of child pornography: create more child pornography for comparison!" writes Salon's Jenny Kutner.

Mediaite's Tina Nguyen says the story sounds like a bad television comedy sketch. "Yes," she writes, "this is real life."

Dan Savage, a love advice columnist, took to Twitter to encourage his 192,000 followers to send pictures of their own engorged genitalia to the Manassas police.

On Wednesday night, the police issued a written response to the media firestorm. Although the department declined to comment on the details of the case, it stated:

It is not the policy of the Manassas City Police or the Commonwealth Attorney's Office to authorise invasive search procedures of suspects in cases of this nature and no such procedures have been conducted in this case.

After the initial shock headlines involving shots and photographs, some writers took a look at the bigger picture.

"This is the tale of a police force and prosecutors who allegedly want to do the unspeakable in order to fight what some might describe as, well, teens being teens," writes CNET's Chris Matyszczyk.

He says that criminalising sexting is the wrong way to address what should be considered a lapse of judgement on the part of youth.

"It's not as if technology has suddenly caused teenagers to behave in questionable ways," he writes. "The only difference is that now it can be much more widely disseminated.

"It's true that once something is digitally transmitted, it will likely live forever, at least in some dark virtual corner," he continues. "Education is, perhaps, the best way to warn teens of the dangers."

Slate's Emily Bazelon says that consent is the key issue here. Were both the boy and the girl willing participants in the text exchange? State legislatures, which have widely divergent ways of addressing teen sexting, need to come up with clearer laws.

"What they should do is distinguish between consensual sexting, and (especially) sending out an image of someone who would not want that picture or video to circulate, or to someone who does not wish to receive it."

Those with good memories may recall that Manassas was also the home of Lorena Bobbitt, who made international headlines in 1993 when she was charged with cutting off her husband's penis while he slept.

The case created a media circus and was the butt of late-night jokes for years afterward.

The next scheduled court date in the sexting case is set for July 15. It looks like the circus is coming back to town.

UPDATE (14:43 EDT): On Thursday afternoon the Associated Press reported that the Manassas City Police will no longer proceed with plans to take new photographs of the teen "and will let a search warrant authorising the photos expire".