Illinois Teens Charged As Child Pornographers In ‘Sexting’ Case

Another case of teenagers 'sexting,' another dumb overreaction by law enforcement.

Sending Message On Phone

A group of teenagers in Illinois are facing charges of producing and distributing child pornography after filming themselves having sex:

CHICAGO (CBS) — Four suburban teenagers have been arrested on felony charges, for an explicit video they posted on Twitter.

All four students attend Joliet Central High School, and are between the ages of 14 and 16. A 15-year-old girl and three of her classmates recorded consensual sex acts one week ago, and posted the video on Twitter.

The girl’s mother found out about the video, and reported the Twitter post to police, who seized the original recording.

The four teens were arrested Friday, and charged as juveniles with child pornography

Joliet Police Chief Brian Benton said posting the video online made already risky behavior criminal.

“It’s a criminal offense, first of all, to post that type of material online, especially for underage,” Benton said.

Police want the charges against the four students to serve as a cautionary tale to other youths engaged in high-risk behavior.

“The child pornography offense that was charged is in place for a reason, because we don’t want to accept that type of behavior as a society,” Benton said. “It’s making a strong statement, and I think it’s important to do so, to send a message to others that kids shouldn’t be involved in this type of behavior, and hopefully this will serve as a deterrent.”

Although the use of social media is somewhat different from previous cases, this is not an unfamiliar tale. Ever since cell phones and smartphones obtained the ability to take pictures, and later video, and share them with others, the people who use those devices have used them to share explicit photos and videos. The fact that smartphones are now as common a teenager accessory as the Sony Walkman was some 30 years ago, combined with teenage sexual precociousness and naivete that goes back long before the development of high technology, meant that this would inevitably include teenagers sending explicit photos to each other. ‘Sexting,’ as it has come to be called, has come to be the latest version of panic about what kids are doing today and the response by parents, school authorities, and law enforcement has consisted largely of panic, overreaction, and the kind of charges that could effectively ruin a teenager’s adult life before it even begins.

Last year in Virginia, for example, a teenage boy residing in the Washington, D.C. suburb was charged with production and distribution of child pornography due to a picture that he sent to his girlfriend which was discovered by her parents. For whatever reason, the girl involved in this particular incident wasn’t charged even though she had sent a similarly explicit photo. In any case, while the charges were pending prosecutors in Prince William County made national news when they sought to obtain a court order to allow them to given the defendant an injection an take pictures of his genitals for “evidence” in the upcoming trial. After a media firestorm, the request was dropped and the case against the defendant was eventually resolved in a manner that would not result in serious charges on his record following into adulthood. His story, though, was just the latest example of the ham-fisted way that these cases have been handled. A quick Google search revealed reports of similar incidents in Fairfax County, Virginia, Michigan, and Florida. As long ago as five years ago, there was discussion of changing the way the law handles theses cases, and some states have changed their laws, but many have not and we end up with cases like the one in Illinois.

As Elizabeth Nolan Brown notes, the laws against child pornography exist to prevent the sexual exploitation by adult. They care with them harsh sentences and the prospect of being branded as a sex offender of life because of the belief that it is necessary to do this in order to protect children from those who would but them in danger. That’s not what happened in this case in Illinois, or in any of the other teen “sexting” cases that make the news every now and then. It is admittedly stupid for teens to take photos and videos like this and share them, even with one person, and it should be the responsibility of parents and school authorities to education children about the consequences of combining technology with normal teenage sexual curiosity. Absent a situation where someone was actually abused, or where photos or video were taken without consent, though, this just doesn’t seem to be something that can or should be handled by law enforcement.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I am a parent of two teenagers, a boy and a girl, both armed with iPhones.

    This is the kind of thing that should involve a telephone call to parents. This falls squarely within the parental sphere. Cops used to understand that kind of thing. Giving these kids a criminal record and a spot on the sex offenders registry is insane overreaction.

  2. jd says:

    Well, it *was* the end of the month and everybody needs to meet their job quota expectations.

  3. HarvardLaw92 says:

    I’ll go on record as saying that photo(s) or videos one takes of one’s self should never constitute a violation of these statutes.

    The premise of these statutes is ostensibly to protect children from being victimized. It’s a (hell of a) stretch to assert that they’re victimizing themselves.

  4. Tyrell says:

    @michael reynolds: Exactly. The police used to go straight to the parents if they found a kid getting into trouble. And this compares to some of the foolish actions by school officials: 6 year old questioned by police for hours for bringing toy cap pistol on bus.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    @michael reynolds: “This falls squarely within the parental sphere.”

    But the parent made the call. Let me make an educated guess here. The mother is single and used the cops to send a scared-straight message to her daughter. Maybe at one time, the mom would say “wait til your father gets home,’ and a grumpy, aloof man would come home and yell at the kid. Now the father is either absent or playing with the kids half the time.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    Joliet Central High School — 74.7% are from low-income households.

  7. jewelbomb says:

    @PD Shaw: Sure, why not use this as a chance to speculate wildly about things for which you have absolutely no evidence?

  8. Gustopher says:

    Up until the point where the police got involved, it seems like these kids were having a much better time as teenagers than I was.

  9. Gustopher says:

    We clearly need a blanket overhaul of child pornography laws to put the actions of the kids themselves out of the sphere of the prosecutors.

    Questioning with a social worker present, or questioning by a social worker, should be enough to determine if there are any adults involved (perhaps off frame, perhaps paying them to record themselves..,). And that would serve any “scared straight” purposes, and get the police involved enough to ensure that the videos are taken down off various social networking sites.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    @jewelbomb: Why not, if we are going to speculate that none of the participants was harmed and everybody consented to the video being uploaded?

  11. Gustopher says:

    Unrelated to this particular case, but when do the police go after Snapchat for the distribution of child pornography?

  12. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    This is the kind of thing that should involve a telephone call to parents. This falls squarely within the parental sphere. Cops used to understand that kind of thing. Giving these kids a criminal record and a spot on the sex offenders registry is insane overreaction.

    Exactly right. Dead on.

    This is an egregious overreaction by everyone in law enforcement, and not at all the intention of the law, nor of anyone who wrote the law. We live in stupid times.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    @Gustopher: Having the kids interviewed by a social worker would almost necessarily require their arrest, though not the couple of weeks are so that these kids are being held in Juvie. If, however, the kids are hiding something, like they simply don’t want to get their friends in trouble (even if they don’t know what that means), the social worker may not be sure what is going on in a 50 minute visit.

  14. superdestroyer says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Does this go to the idea that children cannot actually give consent. What is an adult pressures them to do it? How will consent be determined? I think the legal system is making a mountain out of a molehill but the legal system has been trending this way for a long time.

  15. de stijl says:

    “It’s a criminal offense, first of all, to post that type of material online, especially for underage,” Benton said.

    It seems that Chief Benton is saying here that even if the parties were not underage, it would still be illegal to post sexually explicit material online. That depictions of adults engaging in sexy fun-time activities is illegal.

    If that were true, the internet wouldn’t exist.

  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @superdestroyer:

    I’m a pretty good attorney, but I think even I would have a difficult time establishing that someone who voluntarily takes a nude photo of their own body didn’t consent to the photo being taken.

    This strikes me as, underneath the surface anyway, a moral judgment being made by the police & prosecution. They’re misusing a law intended to prevent children from being victimized by adults to penalize minors for being sexually active – IMO based on moral disapproval of that fact.

    It’s both a misuse of the statute and a gross overreaction.

  17. superdestroyer says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    A minor female taking a picture for a boy friend could be considered as under pressure. Also, if there were several girls in the picture and one of the girls posts the picture to social media, then how was consent obtained (and documented)?

    I understand your point but consent with minors is always difficult. It goes with the states that do not let minors get tattoos because they are too young to consent.

    Also, I have always out it odd that states consider minors able to handle some decisions such as access to birth control but not allowing access to tobacco or alcohol.

  18. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @superdestroyer:

    If they 1) know that they are being recorded, and 2) are in a position to opt out, but choose not to do so, then they have consented to being recorded.

    Again, the premise of these statutes is to protect children from predators, not so much to protect them from themselves.

    I think you’ll agree that a 15 year old being placed on a sex offender registry for taking a nude photo of him/herself is insanely overreacting to the facts of the situation.

  19. PD Shaw says:

    They posted the commission of a crime:

    (b) A person commits criminal sexual abuse if that person is under 17 years of age and commits an act of sexual penetration or sexual conduct with a victim who is at least 9 years of age but under 17 years of age.

    (c) A person commits criminal sexual abuse if that person commits an act of sexual penetration or sexual conduct with a victim who is at least 13 years of age but under 17 years of age and the person is less than 5 years older than the victim.

    Misdemeanor Statutory Rape

  20. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @de stijl:

    That was my take on it as well – the motivating factor here seems to be that the police chief and the prosecutors have a moral problem with nude photos in and of themselves. They’re crucifying these kids on the cross of someone else’s subjective morality.

  21. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @PD Shaw:

    720 ILCS 5/11-1.50 is a Class A misdemeanor that, to my knowledge, they are not being charged with having committed. They’re going after these 4 on felony violations of 720 ILCS 5/11-20.1

  22. Jack says:

    Child uses gun phone, likely provided and/or paid for by parent, to commit a felony. Where are all the calls for the parents to be charged with child neglect, child endangerment, or negligence?

  23. @HarvardLaw92:

    Agreed completely. Perhaps there’s some role for the juvenile justice system to play a role by putting these kids into a counseling program depending on the circumstances of the case, but to charge them with felonies like this is just absurd overreach.

  24. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I’m not necessarily opposed to that, as there seems to me to be a role for the state to play in acting as an intervenor (in the social sense) with regard to what can be potentially damaging behavior, but I’m not sure how far we get with “that feels fricking great, but don’t do it, ok?” It’s not realistic. I’m all for educational efforts which prepare these kids to protect themselves against the potential consequences of their actions though. I do think that automatic inclusion on sex offender registries for clearly non-predatory minors needs to be repealed, yesterday.

    I, for one, lived in deathly fear that my oldest (who definitely got his looks from his mother, not me …), Johnny Rocket lacrosse stud who was pretty clearly sexually active at least by the time he got to high school (if not earlier 🙁 ) would present me with a grandchild that 1) he wasn’t prepared to raise and 2) which I had no desire to raise for him. To that end, we had every talk / lecture / this is how you use a condom and you better damn well always use one demon/remonstration in the book. I also get that some parents either can’t (morals / discomfort) or won’t (just too unconcerned to care) do that, so there’s probably a role for some state mandated consequences, but felony charges go unbelievably far beyond what’s warranted or even reasonable in this instance.

  25. Gustopher says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    I’m a pretty good attorney, but I think even I would have a difficult time establishing that someone who voluntarily takes a nude photo of their own body didn’t consent to the photo being taken.

    Except, it is very clear from a legal perspective, that someone below the age of consent cannot –um– consent. Even if they really, really want to consent.

    If the pictures or videos were being taken by a 50 year old man, no one would be claiming the children consented. And, everyone would be wanting that 50 year old man put on sex offender lists.

    I think it is morally offensive to try children in adult court for their own child pornography (or even passing around pictures of their classmates, friends, etc), but I cannot see us ever getting to a spot where our laws allow the possession or distribution of child porn, even by the children involved. But, reducing it to a juvenile offense in their sealed juvenile record would at least avoid ruining the lives of the kids.

  26. Gustopher says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I’m pretty sure that “It’s a criminal offense, first of all, to post that type of material online, especially for underage,” was just a poorly constructed statement that it is illegal to post child pornography online even for the underage. At least, that’s how I read it. It’s a weird sentence. I’ll give him some benefit of the doubt, and even assume that he might haven meant “even” rather than “especially”.

    I expect that the police chief is trying to send a message to the community that this is illegal and bad, but I think he is doing it very badly, running the risk of ruining kids lives in the process. He should be fired.

  27. wr says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “Perhaps there’s some role for the juvenile justice system to play a role by putting these kids into a counseling program depending on the circumstances of the case, ”

    Has this country gone so insane that now kids have to go into counseling for having sex before they’re 18? For God’s sake, some kids mature faster than others, and some teenagers have sex. I know that’s scary to someone like SuperD — who seems to be terrified by just about everything — and this a**hole who has decided that “law enforcement” is actually “ever’body got to do what I say,” but this is teenagers apparently havind consensual sex.

    Funny, I keep hearing the right wingers scream about “freedom” — and here they are criminalzing the most basic of all human actions.

  28. wr says:

    @Gustopher: “I think it is morally offensive to try children in adult court for their own child pornography (or even passing around pictures of their classmates, friends, etc), but I cannot see us ever getting to a spot where our laws allow the possession or distribution of child porn, ”

    Child porn? Seriously? If you can’t tell the difference between the rape of a six year old and a nude photo of a sixteen year old, there is something seriously wrong with you.

    We draw the line at 18 because we have to draw a line somewhere, but can’t we admit it’s a pretty arbitrary one? We are not talking about the sexual abuse of a child here — it’s not abuse, and they’re not children. In fact, if they’re black and a white person shoots one of them, they’re full-grown thugs, according to the right wingers around here…

  29. Paul Hooson says:

    This is what happens when you let some outlandish public figure like Geraldo Rivera advocate and inspire public law. He was one of the first public figures to promote an overhaul of public laws, with the overall good intent of protecting children from criminal abuse, but it created many new legal grey areas or legal abuses of law such as in this case. New legislation meant to stop rapists from distributing their sick and twisted exploits, as opposed to legal adult entertainment, now catch high school kids unaware of the huge legal consequences of their actions to themselves or to anyone who would accidentally even view such material if posted in a public place such as YouTube.

  30. Another Mike says:

    @wr:

    Funny, I keep hearing the right wingers scream about “freedom” — and here they are criminalzing the most basic of all human actions.

    I do not know how you came by your power to discern which party made these laws and is enforcing these laws, but as a so-called right-winger, at least on social issues, I agree with Michael Reynolds and HarvardLaw92 on how to view this incident.

  31. PD Shaw says:

    @wr: “Has this country gone so insane that now kids have to go into counseling for having sex before they’re 18.”

    A 15 yr old girl f*cking three boys and posting it on the internet is a good indicator of potential mental health problems or a history of abuse.

  32. PJ says:

    @PD Shaw:

    A 15 yr old girl f*cking three boys and posting it on the internet is a good indicator of potential mental health problems or a history of abuse.

    And if it was a 15 year old boy? Who was f*cking three girls and posting it on the internet? Would you also say that that was a good indicator for potential mental health problems or a history of abuse?

  33. steve says:

    “And if it was a 15 year old boy? Who was f*cking three girls and posting it on the internet? Would you also say that that was a good indicator for potential mental health problems or a history of abuse?”

    Yes. Most teen boys that young are not recording their sex acts and putting them on the net. For that matter most adults don’t either. To do so at such a young age certainly suggests some issues.

    Steve

  34. Slugger says:

    What I said in the first amendment T-shirt thread works here. If we don’t show youngsters that authority consists of arbitrary, stupid rules applied capriciously, how will they be ready for adult life?

  35. Tony W says:

    I think another factor here might be the incentive police have to criminalize anything they can – to justify their own existence.

    I didn’t really see this incentive demonstrated strongly until I moved to a large city a few years ago. The local “Community Relations Officer” spends a great deal of time trying to convince us that we are in Great Danger – and only the thin blue line can protect us.

    The department goes to great length in this regard. Our local officer places regular posts on Nextdoor.com, he attends local neighborhood meetings, sets up a booth at every “Taste of xxx” event and “Fun Run”, and generally behaves like a local city councilman or legislator would.

    I imagine the investment in a Community Relations Officer pays back tenfold in reducing annual budget pressures.

  36. wr says:

    @steve: “Most teen boys that young are not recording their sex acts and putting them on the net. For that matter most adults don’t either.”

    Personally I think there should be a difference between things “most people don’t do” and things we must either incarcerate, medicate or psychoanalyze people for.

    People are not all the same. The things we do are not all the same. The mistakes we make – if this was a mistake — are not all the same.

    We shouldn’t start locking up people just because they don’t act like we did.

  37. Grewgills says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    If they 1) know that they are being recorded, and 2) are in a position to opt out, but choose not to do so, then they have consented to being recorded.

    With the facts presented thus far, we don’t know that there wasn’t any off camera coercion. Social services should be the ones taking point on this. The police may need to get involved later if someone was coerced, but not with a law intended to protect children from predatory adults. None of them are adults and there is no way for all four to be predators.

    Again, the premise of these statutes is to protect children from predators, not so much to protect them from themselves.

    Some of them are predators. That shouldn’t be the default assumption, but the default assumption shouldn’t be that the teen girl’s mom didn’t have good reason to call the cops either.

  38. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Grewgills:

    She ended up having her own daughter arrested as well, so it’s probably a decent assumption that there was no coercion, but fair enough points I suppose.

  39. Grewgills says:

    @HarvardLaw92:
    I strongly suspect that the mother didn’t think her daughter would also be charged. All we really know at this point is the video/pictures were made and posted, the mother of the girl reported it to the police, and the police reacted spectacularly poorly.

  40. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    I am inclined to see these situations as examples of how difficult it is for statutary law to distinguish among predators, perverts, and horndogs, so I gravitate toward the MR/HL’92 camp. I don’t know how the wise guys that make up state legislatures can create workable distinctions among those camps and the punishments appropriate for each group–partially because the groups may overlap at times (for an example google “Clatskanie Oregon sexting”–full disclosure, I worked there years ago and know the building principal of the high school).

    For me the greater moral hazard is that, irrespective of the desires of the participants–or anyone else for that matter, those tweets are probably already circulating and being marketed by pornographers of all stripes even as we speak. I don’t know the solution to the problem and will not advocate for the encarceration of those children for facilitating the perversions of others, but this bell will not be unrung.

  41. DrDaveT says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker:

    those tweets are probably already circulating and being marketed by pornographers of all stripes even as we speak.

    And those pornographers should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Unlike the kids who made the videos.

    As a tangent, if you’re older than about 30 you probably are wholly unaware of how utterly normal it is for a kid to post something like this to Facebook. I suspect that it’s the approximate equivalent of “talking about it in the lunch room” when I was in high school. You can’t assess what’s really going on here without understanding how completely (socially) networked kids are.

  42. Grumpy Realist says:

    @HarvardLaw92: that sounds like a parent with a bratty kid out of control, who calls the police because she can’t think of any other way out of the situation.

  43. Mu says:

    What we are teaching here is “don’t ask anybody for help”. Like the mother who got her son labeled a lifelong sex offender for touching his sister this women got her daughter into jail for something she thought the system would be on her side. Nope, the system takes it as “thank you for the evidence, my next performance review will rock”, and throws the (stupidly written) book at the kids.

  44. Ken says:

    @HarvardLaw92: They’re misusing a law intended to prevent children from being victimized by adults to penalize minors for being sexually active

    This can’t be repeated enough.

  45. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: As another tangent, yes, I am over 30 (by a considerable margin) and the old fogey in me finds that the way that you seem to be able to talk about what kids post on facebook so blithely deeply troubling.

    Also, note that I did not advocate prosecuting the kids, so stuff that part of your rant.