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2012-02-29 / Front Page

Texas’ new sexting law

Message to parents: ‘Watch Your Kids’

Camera phones present challenges to parents as they attempt to monitor their teenagers’ activities. Camera phones present challenges to parents as they attempt to monitor their teenagers’ activities. Doors work in both directions. New technologies are opening doors of opportunities for Texas teens. The problem is, on either side of the door, there could be a golden opportunity, or a sexual predator.

A new Texas law reduces penalties for Texas teens who violate sexting laws. Lawmakers are hoping the unconventional approach helps to protect kids from predators who seek to prey on children.

In order to adequately prosecute sexual predators, new laws were needed to distinguish between a sexual predator and school children sending compromising photographs of themselves to other minors. Without distinguishing the difference between the two, minors could be prosecuted as felons while sexual predators could get lessor penalties based on the legal system wishing to be equally fair but not severe on minors. Rusk Police Chief Joe Evans said complaints regarding teen sexting in the area have been few, but each complaint is taken seriously because of the possible ramifications.

“If we get a complaint on it, it’s serious, because of the age of the person, they could be considered to be a child under Texas Law,” Chief Evans said. “And if the person is considered to be a child, under Texas law you are dealing with child pornography.” The Texas Attorney General’s Office (TAG) defines “Sexting” as: “The practice of sending or receiving sexually explicit images or pictures in various stages of undress through text message on cell phones.

A release from the TAG Office says that while sexting would not be a violation of the law if the sender, receiver and person(s) in the images are at least 18-years old; according to Texas AG Greg Abbot, sexting is “increasingly common among teenage children.”

“Studies show that teenage students are increasingly creating, sending and receiving explicit pictures of themselves on their mobile telephones,” Attorney General Abbott said. “This practice is not just harmful to the young Texans who appear in compromising photographs – it poses significant legal risks. Thanks to Sen. Kirk Watson’s, D-Austin, legislation, Texas has a common-sense law that holds wrongdoers accountable – but does not impose life-altering consequences on young offenders.”

“That is why some of the changes were made to the legislation, was to lessen the penalty with kids sexting each other,” Chief Evans said. “But if one of the persons doing it is an adult, you’ve got them for child pornography.”

Chief Evans explained some of the situations can get a bit dicey.

“You take an 18 or 19 year old, and they start sending around pictures of a 14 year old, then he’s in serious trouble,” Chief Evans said. “But if another 14 year old is sending pictures around, it may not be looked at as seriously by the courts.”

According to Abbott, before the passage of Senate Bill 407 (SB 407), any person – including a teenage minor – who transmits an explicit image of a minor could have been prosecuted for felony child pornography possession or trafficking violations. As a result, children who sent illicit images of themselves or their friends faced felony charges with lifelong consequences.

SB 407 gives prosecutors the ability to pursue less draconian criminal charges against minors who create and sent text messages containing illicit pictures of other minors because it creates a misdemeanor offense for minors.

Sen. Kirk Watson, one of the authors of SB 407, said in a recent interview the changes made in the law are a sign of the times.

“This bill is a timely, thoughtful, bipartisan response to a 21st Century legal issue facing kids and prosecutors. This problem must be met head-on with both educational opportunities and appropriate consequences,” Sen. Watson said.

“We’ve given law enforcement an alternative for dealing with juveniles who make a mistake, and we’ve left prosecutors the discretion to pursue felony charges against those who constitute a true threat to our children.”

Chief Evans said one of the best things that parents can do to protect their children is to remain very involved in their kids’ lives—even if it means being nosey.

“Parents have to be pretty nosey,” Chief Evans said. “We tell parents you need to monitor what they are doing on the phone, you need to monitor what they are doing on their computers.

“I grew up when we didn’t have to worry about things like this,” Chief Evans added. “But with the world as it is today, we have predators out there that are preying on the kids. So the parents have to monitor what the kids are doing and be aware of what their kids are doing.”

Chief Evans noted that online over the computer, you never know when the predator is pretending to be another child.

“We tell parents to keep a close eye on your kids,” Chief Evans said. “Set them down and explain to them why. It’s not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of concern. We just don’t want anything to happen to those kids.”

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