Selfie and Child Porngraphy

The word “selfie” has become part of our everyday vocabulary. In 2013 it was named the “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.” For the uninitiated, a selfie is a self-portrait photo typically taken with a digital/smartphone camera. The explosion of social media and camera phones have created endless opportunities for anyone to share their self-portraits with the world.

Some teens, already prone to oversharing, take multiple selfies daily. With so many photos flying around, there’s also a potential for criminal liability under child pornography laws when selfies involve underage nudity or sexual situations.

Since technology moves much faster than the law, crimes committed via social media are often prosecuted by applying existing statutes. Under federal law, child pornography is defined as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor, which is the standard that would apply to selfies.

The U.S. Department of Justice prosecutes child pornography offenses occurring across state or international borders and almost anytime it involves the Internet. Federal charges need not be exclusive as a person could also face criminal liability under state child pornography laws, which are largely similar to, and sometimes more comprehensive than, federal laws. Many states further define elements of the crime, such as what constitutes sexually explicit conduct or who is considered a minor.

If an adult takes a sexually explicit picture of a minor and shares it via social media or text message, that adult will likely have run afoul of child pornography laws. But what about a minor who takes selfies and sends them discreetly to another teen? What if the receiver then forwards the photos to others? Have they violated any laws? In many states, the answer is yes.

Though their laws were created to protect minors from exploitation caused by others, states are prosecuting minors under child pornography statutes for sending nude or otherwise lurid self-portraits, even when the minors sent the selfies without coercion. The common quirk in the laws is that there is no exception for taking or distributing sexually explicit pictures of oneself. Thus, a high school student sending a racy selfie to a boyfriend or girlfriend could subject both themselves and the receiver to prosecution for child pornography. If the picture makes its way around other social circles through online or direct sharing, anyone who received or distributed the photo could also find themselves open to charges.

The overall trend on both the federal and state levels is toward broader definitions of child pornography with increased prosecutions and harsher penalties for those connected to it. One of the gray areas in the age of social media is what constitutes “possession” of child pornography. Most social media sites can now store large caches of images indefinitely on the Internet, lessening the need for viewers to download files to their computers. Other services, such as Snapchat, can be used to distribute selfies that auto-delete themselves after a few seconds (though the receiver may take a screen shot before the image disappears).

Since merely viewing child pornography is illegal in many states, browsing a website or knowingly receiving illegal images would be criminal activity in those jurisdictions. Other states’ child pornography laws, however, have “possession” requirements that are somewhat archaic in the digital age. The shortcomings of these statutes were exemplified by a pair of high court decisions from Oregon and New York:

A 2011 decision by the Oregon Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man charged under the state’s Encouraging Child Sexual Abuse statute since the child pornography in question was only accessed on the Internet and he never ‘possessed’ or ‘controlled’ the images, as required by the law.

Similarly, in 2012, the New York Court of Appeals held that viewing child pornography online does constitute the “knowing procurement or possession of those files” and reversed some charges against the defendant.

States have since taken steps to close such loopholes and expand the reach of their child pornography laws to include developing and future technologies, but this is an area of law that is rapidly evolving to meet the times. For teens sending or exchanging risqué pictures, their concern can no longer be limited to whether it may bring embarrassment or even parental and academic discipline. Instead, they need to also consider whether that sexually explicit selfie can get them prosecuted under child pornography laws.

If you or a loved one is in a bind as a result of a criminal charge, immediately contact a Seattle Criminal Attorney. A Criminal lawyer is not going to judge you, and understands that everyone makes mistakes. Hiring a Seattle Criminal Lawyer to help can – at a minimum – reduce penalties, and can help direct people on how to best deal with their criminal charge, and many times even get them dismissed. So it should go without saying that someone cited for a misdemeanor or felony should hire a qualified Seattle Criminal Lawyer as soon as possible. Criminal charges can cause havoc on a person’s personal and professional life. Anyone charged with a crime in Washington State should immediately seek the assistance of a seasoned Seattle Criminal Lawyer.

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