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Can teenagers be charged with a crime for sexting?

North Dakota residents whose teenage children have been arrested after sexting incidents may have questions about why their children are facing charges. While most criminal codes do not address sexting, it is possible that teenagers under 18 may be accused of child pornography charges.

While teenagers taking explicit photos of themselves and sending them via SMS message, email or other networks to their boyfriends or girlfriends may not seem comparable to adults trafficking in child pornography, prosecutors may interpret both offenses in the same way and charge the teens who took the photographs and transmitted them or the teens who receive them under child pornography laws. The possession, production and distribution of child pornography are felony offenses punishable by steep fines and long prison sentences. A person accused of any of these crimes may be tried in both state and federal court.

Under U.S. codes, most first-offense production of child pornography charges are punishable by prison sentences of at least 15 years and up to 30 years. First-offense possession of child pornography charges carry prison sentences of between five and 20 years. Courts also typically order a person convicted of child pornography charges to pay fines. Judges may impose harsher sentences if the accused person has been convicted in the past of certain sex offenses such as sexual abuse of a minor child.

Most teenagers who send explicit photos of themselves or keep such photos of a dating partner do not understand that their actions can constitute producing or possessing child pornography. While the penalties for child pornography charges and other Internet sex crimes may seem intimidating, it may be possible for a defense attorney to advocate for teenage clients. Attorneys may be able to work with prosecutors to develop a plan to prevent future offenses from occurring in exchange for guilty pleas to lesser charges.

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