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Sexting bill would shield teens from adult sex offense rules

(File Photo)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Legislation aimed at keeping youths who send sexually explicit texts from being charged and registered under adult sex offender laws has been sent to Gov. Jay Inslee.

The bill that passed in the state Legislature on Wednesday night would create a new group of crimes reserved specifically for minors who are caught with explicit images of other minors. Most of the new crimes would be set as misdemeanors — a status that would exempt convicted youth from having to register as sex offenders.

Sexting, a combination of the words “sex” and “texting” referring to sending explicit photos or videos over messaging services has become popular among some young people.

Even critics of the bill acknowledged that current state law creates a situation where teens reporting an explicit image to adults could be charged with a felony for possessing or creating child pornography, leading to them being registered in the same public database as adult sex offenders.

“This is a statute written for dealing with child pornography, at a time when no one had cellphones,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Redmond Democrat who voted for the bill. “No one could even anticipate that we would live in the culture that we currently do, with our children actually sexting.”

Along with being part of flirtation or romantic relationships, sexting has over time become a factor in bullying as well, when minors lose control of images that end up being shared beyond romantic partners.

Under current law, the statutes that criminalize youth exchanging such images are the same ones originally written to target adults for child pornography, which include broad language banning the possession, production, or exchange of explicit images of minors.

Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican, voted against the bill but said he could understand the basic predicament it tried to address.

“We might not approve of it, we might not like it, but we can understand where maybe two teenagers who are in some sort of relationship send images,” he said, adding it was “reasonable” to reduce penalties for sexting in some cases.

“But this bill deals with far, far more than that,” Padden said.

The bill would create a separate set of crimes only applicable to under-18 offenders, making it a misdemeanor instead of a felony for a minor to exchange images of another minor, with an exception for images of some types of sex acts.

Exchanging images of a child 12 or younger would remain a felony, as would the sale of images of another minor, but under new, minors-only criminal definitions.

Padden and other Republicans said that was overly broad.

Rather than being limited to self-generated images, Padden said his interpretation of the bill was that it would decriminalize even teens who purposefully collect child pornography from well outside their own social circles. He also questioned the list of acts that might qualify an image as a misdemeanor, calling some of them “perverse.”

Democratic supporters responded the bill was limited in its scope, and was strictly aimed at keeping minors caught sexting off the sex offender registry.

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