December 1, 2022
The law often lags far behind new technology—sometimes with disastrous results.
One huge example of this is the rise of sexting among teens. Until the law is modified, minors can find themselves facing child pornography charges for sharing explicit photos via mobile technology. And it’s not just criminal charges that teens face for sexting—under Colorado law, they could be forced to register as sex offenders.
The town of Cañon City, Colorado is learning this the hard way. Hundreds of students at Cañon City High School are currently under investigation for taking, possessing, or sharing nude photographs of themselves or one of their peers.
The community is in uproar over the massive sexting scandal, and the students under investigation – and their parents – are terrified of the real criminal consequences many of them will likely face.
Speaking at a news conference, Fremont County District Attorney Tom LeDoux said that a number of students may receive felony charges, and acknowledged the possibility that “students will have to register as sex offenders” in some cases.
“It doesn’t matter if it was consensual. There is no distinction according to Colorado state statutes,” he said. “The district attorney’s office will make distinctions as we see fit.”
Under Colorado Law, Teen Sexting is a Crime
Many parents today worry about kind of trouble their teen can get into with new technology. But few would expect their teen to face felony charges and sex offender registry.
Under Colorado law, however, minors can be prosecuted for a sex crime for sexting—even when consensually sharing pictures of themselves.
The law considers it “sexual exploitation of a child” to possess, distribute, or take an explicit image featuring a person under the age of 18, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a minor themselves.
Under Colorado Revised Statutes Annotated § 18-6-403, a person commits sexual exploitation of a child when that person knowingly:
- causes or permits a minor to engage in sexual conduct in order to make a sexual image of such a person
- possesses or controls any sexual image of a minor
- prepares any sexual image of a minor for publication or distribution through electronic means
- possesses with the intent to sell or distribute any sexual image of a minor
Depending on the circumstances, sexual exploitation of a child may be charged as a Class 3, 4, or 6 felony offense.
Paradoxically, these laws mean sexting teens who share explicit images of themselves can be considered both the victim and the perpetrator of sexual exploitation of a child.
Many states, including Utah, Florida, and Connecticut have attempted to address this contradiction by passing laws that specifically address teen sexting—but Colorado isn’t among them. In our state, teens who sext can still face the same charges as predatory child pornographers.
Possible Colorado Criminal Punishments for Teen Sexting
LeDoux has stated that the prosecution intends to use discretion during the investigation, as well as carefully considering the implication of issuing any criminal charges and subsequent penalties.
“I also want to assure everyone that we’re going to do everything in our power to make reasonable and logical decisions how to respond to these cases as they come in,” the DA told reporters at the press conference.
But as we mentioned above, LeDoux has acknowledged that for some of the hundreds of students under investigation, sex offender registry isn’t off the table.
Juvenile offenders who actually receive criminal charges are usually processed through the juvenile justice system. While this typically carries more rehabilitative penalties than the adult criminal justice system, the consequences of a conviction are still severe for minors.
For teenagers over the age of 18 (or any adult) sexting with a minor can have even more serious consequences.
When a minor is accused of a sexting-related crime, they will be processed through Colorado’s juvenile justice system. Compared to the adult criminal justice system, the prosecutors and judges in juvenile courts have more freedom of choice over issuing an appropriate sentence.
Still, young offenders could face a wide variety of penalties, depending on their situation and the discretion of the courts and prosecution for their case. Juveniles could face house arrest, probation, fines, and placement with social services or detention in a juvenile facility.
For high-school students who are 18 or older, or full-grown adults, the penalties for sexting with a minor can be much more significant.
Depending on the circumstances, an adult convicted of sexual exploitation of a child can face up to 12 years in prison and fines of up to $750,000. Additionally, adults who engaging in sexting with teens may face an Internet Sexual Exploitation of a Child charge.
Talk to Your Teen about Sexting
Though it may be an uncomfortable conversation, it’s critical that parents, teachers, and other adults speak to teens about the severe potential punishments for sexting.
If your teenager is facing criminal charges already, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney right away. A strong criminal defense is critical for keeping your teen out of the criminal system, and protecting them from the long-term burden of sex offender registry.
About the Author:
Denver-based criminal defense and DUI attorney Jacob E. Martinez is a knowledgeable and experienced litigator with a record of success providing innovative solutions to clients facing criminal charges of any severity. Mr. Martinez has been designated a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers and has been awarded both the Avvo Client’s Choice Award and Avvo Top Attorney designation, evidencing his reputation for his exemplary criminal and DUI defense work and high moral standards.