In the age of the Internet, social media, unlimited data plans, and teenagers’ constant use of cellphones, sexting has become a worldwide phenomenon, including in the Fort Walton Beach area. Sexting refers to sending sexually explicit messages and photos through online communication. Common ways to sext include:
- Text message
- What’s App
- Facebook Messenger
Minors have been swept up in the sexting craze, and though the vast majority of them are sexting with teenagers around their age, they are still breaking the law. Child pornography, regardless of the age of the person found in possession or of the consent of the child appearing in the photo, is a crime. However, Florida legislature has been playing around with the idea of sexting for a while now.
In 2011, in response to the increase in the number of teens sexing nude photos to each other using cellphones and webcams, the Florida legislature passed an anti-sexting law. The anti-sexting statute prohibits minors from providing a nude photo to another minor. It doesn’t matter if the photo is of them or another individual. If caught, the teen faces community service or a small fine. The first infraction is merely civil, not criminal, and does not appear on the teen’s criminal record. However, subsequent violations can be misdemeanors or even felonies. Prior to the passing of this law, minors could be charged with possessing or distributing child pornography for sexting with other minors.
The State Attorney’s Office thought it had a slam dunk when it found out that a young girl had sexted a photo of her genitals to another person and charged her under the anti-sexting statute. However, the way the law is currently worded, a prosecutor has absolutely zero power to criminally charge a first-time offender. In addition, Florida law in general does not permit minors to be charged with civil infractions, and the anti-sexting statute makes no mention of how Fort Walton Beach judges are to handle this jurisdictional issue. This meant that when the prosecutor brought the case, the court was unable to hear the case and dismissed the case.
A Florida appellate court affirmed this decision. In its decision, the appellate court stated “that prosecuting the child under the statute in question is the least intrusive means of furthering the State’s compelling interest” in preventing exploitation of minors and minors may be psychologically traumatized by nude photos and videos, but the girl “was simply too young to make an intelligent decision about engaging in sexual conduct and memorializing it.”
Proposed Changes to the Law
Senator Joseph Abruzzo and former Senator Dave Aronberg, who worked together on the anti-sexting statute, are hard at work to fix this issue. The current form of the bill proposes a way to enforce the law. It also pledges 80% of the fine money to various cyber safety and awareness organizations and activities. The bill is still in its infancy. It does not yet have a House sponsor.
In order for the bill to become law and supersede the current anti-sexting statute, it must be:
- Sponsored by a Senate member and placed before the Senate for a vote;
- Sponsored by a House member and placed before the House for a vote;
- Presented to the Governor when a majority vote is obtained by both the Senate and House; and
- Signed by the Governor.
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Fort Walton Beach, FL 32547