North Carolina Teen Charged As A Sex Offender For Having Naked Pictures Of Himself

A teenager in North Carolina is facing serious criminal charges in another absurd overreaction to teenager "sexting."

Sexting

Reason’s Robby Soave passes along the story of a 17 year-old boy in North Carolina who faces a possible future as a registered sex offender because he had a nude picture on his smartphone, a nude picture of himself:

Fayetteville, North Carolina, cops have charged 17-year-old Cormega Copening with sexual exploitation of a minor—his girlfriend, who is the same age—because the couple sent each other nude photos of themselves during their relationship.

There’s no evidence the photos were ever sent to anyone else, and police only became aware of them because they searched Copening’s phone for unrelated reasons that haven’t been specified. Even so, the teen—formerly the starting quarterback at his high school—faces decades on the Sex Offender Registry and up to ten years behind bars if convicted. He’s also been benched from the team while Jack Britt High School investigates the matter.

Copening’s girlfriend—who remains unnamed in the news articles—is also facing charges, ABC11 reported.

These teen-sexting witch hunts are almost always outrageous; they conflate child pornography with something far less sinister. It’s perfectly normal—and wildly common—for kids to express an interest in sex. Should authority figures discourage underage sexting? Sure. Should they ruin kids’ lives for doing it anyway? Absolutely not.

But Copening’s situation is more outrageous than most. As far as I can tell, the pictures weren’t shared with anyone else—this isn’t a case where a boy texted a girl’s nude photos to all of his friends and caused her some considerable public humiliation. The photos were private, and remained that way, until the cops got hold of them. If there’s public humiliation here, police intervention is the cause.

Consider as well that Copening reciprocated with photos of his own. Does not a mutual, voluntary exchange of photos undercut the notion that “sexual exploitation” is a factor here? It’s more than a little ridiculous to accuse these two of exploiting each other—although this is precisely what the authorities are doing, I presume (the specific charges against the girlfriend were not reported).

Lastly, it bears repeating that these teens were 17. If they had waited until they were 18 to send the photos, no crime would have occurred. Eighteen-year-olds are recognized as fully-autonomous sexual adults. Kylie Jenner, who just turned 18, has been inundated with requests to make a sex tape (indeed, filmmakers began making these requests even before she turned 18). The law, by its very nature, permits no nuance: you are 18, or you’re not. But it’s ridiculous to think that teens are magically transformed into adults on their 18th birthday. Many of them—perhaps Copening and his girlfriend—might be ready for mature relationships that involve sex (or, at least, sexy pictures) prior to the government’s randomly-selected date

In a follow-up report, Soave reports additional details about the case that make law enforcement’s actions here even more egregious:

North Carolina is one of two states in the country (the other is progressive New York) that considers 16 to be the age of adulthood for criminal purposes. This mean, of course, that Copening can be tried as an adult for exploiting a minor—himself.

I discovered this when I asked Fayetteville Observer Executive Editor Mike Adams about his publication’s decision to release the names of the teens (something countless other local news reports did as well). He explained to me that it’s the company’s policy to publish the names of adults charged with felony crimes, which includes Copening and Denson, in this case. But The Observer didn’t fully comprehend that Copening and Denson were also the victims—and, by some bizarre quirk of the law, minors in a different sense—until after its original reporting on the issue had already been published.

“I don’t think sexting was considered when this sexual exploitation law was put on the books,” Adams told me.

Indeed. Maybe the legislature should revisit the issue. In the meantime, there is still no excuse for local cops to pursue charges against Copening. They have already humiliated him and damaged (perhaps irreversibly) his high school football career over mildly worrisome behavior that should not even constitute a crime. Cumberland County should exercise some discretion—perhaps some maturity as well—and let this matter go.

Since Copening’s girlfriend is a minor, the crimes he is charged with would seem to carry with them the potential that he could be required to register under the state’s sex offender registry program for at least some period of time, much of which would cover the early years of his adulthood and therefore have a tremendous impact on his future, his athletic career, and his ability to get into college or get a job. The fact that he is charged as an adult would seem to indicate that, at least for the time being, prosecutors intend on pushing for conviction that would required him to enter registry as well. Even if these offenses fell short of the crimes that would require Copening to enter the registry if her were convicted or plead guilty, though, they are still incredibly outrageous. The fact that the pictures were mutual seems to indicate quite strongly that there was absolutely no sexual exploitation involved at all. Obviously, these were two teenagers in a romantic relationship who sent each other sexually provocative pictures. A stupid decision, perhaps, but hardly one that should constitute a crime, especially given the fact that it wouldn’t even be a crime at all if they had waited however many months it might be until they reach their eighteenth birthdays to do it. Finally, the fact that the pictures were discovered during a search of the teens’ phones without a warrant makes the entire incident questionable to say the least.

There’s nothing new about this type of case, of course, and we’ve seen many examples in recent years of teenagers being charged with serious sex-related offenses for something as seemingly innocuous as taking a picture with a smartphone and other activities that clearly don’t rise to the level of the kind of offenses that these registries were meant to cover. There was a case very similar to Copening’s, as a matter fact, in Virginia just last year involving a teenager boy who was charged with production and possession of child pornography because he sent a nude picture to his girlfriend. In that case police and prosecutors had applied to the court to force the teen to undergo a medial procedure so they could take pictures of his genitals for “evidence.” After an uproar that went nationwide, though, prosecutors dropped that plan and the case was resolved in a way that avoided leaving any serious criminal charges on the teen’s record. Earlier this year, a group of teens in Illinois was slapped with child pornography charges over a consensually recorded video that they distributed among themselves.  And these are only the incidents that received enough national attention to make the news beyond their local jurisdiction.  In a search on Google, I found reports of similar incidents in Fairfax County, Virginia, Michigan, and Florida.

Laws against child pornography and the sexual exploitation of minors exist for good reasons, as  Elizabeth Nolan Brown notes, they exist to prevent the sexual exploitation of children by adults. The crimes carry with them harsh penalties including long the prospect of long jail time and the requirement that those convicted register as a sex offender after they are released. The registries themselves also exist for a good reason, to inform the public when there are people with a record of violent sex offenses and offenses against children living in the neighborhood. Where those registries have gone off the track, is in the fact that the types of offenses that require defendants to report to the registry keeps expanding, and the law allows neither police, prosecutors, nor Judges very much discretion in determining who will be required to register. Copening’s case, along with all the other cases involving teen “sexting” are an excellent example of how the registries have become far too blunt an instrument.

The idea behind the registries has been that they are necessary to protect the public at large, and especially children, from those who could be a danger to them by making them aware when such people live near them. That danger simply doesn’t exist in that cast majority of these cases, though. Instead, what you typically have a teenagers and their curiousity about sexuality combined with technology that makes it very easy to share pictures, video, and whatnot. Sharing nude pictures of yourself even with your boyfriend or girlfriend is admittedly a dumb thing to do when you’re a teenager, or an adult for matter, given how it easy it could be for those pictures to become public. Just because it’s a dumb thing to do, though, that doesn’t mean it should be treated as a criminal matter. Instead, parents and school authorities need to educate children about the dangers and consequences of combining their perfectly normal interest in sex with technology that makes it possible for any image to go around in the world in a matter of hours. Unless their was abuse, or a lack of consent, then it seems to be entirely inappropriate to treat these things as a criminal matter. Hopefully, Copening’s case can be resolved in a manner that doesn’t cause him life long consequences, but cases like his will continue to happen as as long as we use the blunt instrument of the law to handle something that is, at the worst, a disciplinary matter. Five years ago, The New York Times wrote about the then relatively new phenomenon of teen “sexting” and the criminal law issues it was raising. Many of the officials quoted in the article said that we need to rethink how we treat these cases and move away from treating them as criminal matters. Five years later, the case of Cormega Copening shows that we still haven’t learned our lesson and that teens are being harmed.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
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. Mu says:

    Only in America will you be charged as an adult for something that’s only a crime because you’re a juvenile.




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  2. Ben Wolf says:

    @Mu: Whenever public officials do something so illogical, so stupid and so obviously absurd it’s confirmation someone is gaining from it. Find out who benefits and you solve the crime.




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  3. Ben Wolf says:

    An adult for trial but a juvenille for evidence. Surely a defense attorney can leverage that.




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  4. Just Me says:

    And this is a really good time for some prosecutorial discretion. It is a waste of time and money to charge and prosecute this young man. The prosecutor should have a talk with the kid about taking naked pictures and putting them in anyone else’s hands. Thisnis stupid teen behavior not sexual predatory behavior and should be treated like stupid teen behavior not a crime.

    I also have grown to hate sex offender lists. They are way too broad (this guys actions don’t belong on the list but they are in no way comparable to a sex offender who forcibly rapes or sexually molests a child) and I think they label people as sex offenders too long and for things that aren’t predatory. It’s a modern day scarlet letter.




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  5. Tony W says:

    I am surprised these lifetime boogie-man lists have survived 8th Amendment scrutiny. Our puritanical roots are showing.




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  6. michael reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Sometimes the “benefit” is purely emotional: spite, jealousy, self-righteousness.




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  7. JKB says:

    Hopefully, his parents didn’t do something ignorant and consent to the police search of his phone. Never, ever, consent to a police search. Never know what they might decide to charge you with. Always require they get a warrant so you can contest the search in court.

    Sad, he nor his girlfriend have a right to privacy. Now if they’d gotten the girl pregnant then she would have a right to privacy to intentional kill the baby. Unclothed images of her vagina or even breasts, no right to privacy. Inserting forceps into her vagina and dragging out the remains of a baby perhaps not killing it until it emerges, right to privacy.




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  8. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds: True.




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  9. Hal_10000 says:

    Not surprised. Since violent crime has plunged, the massive array of cops and prosecutors can only be sated by inventing new crimes to punish, even if the only victim is the perpetrator. In addition to this nonsense, there’s a been a recent trend of charging prostitutes with “sex trafficking” for trafficking … themselves.




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  10. Tyrell says:

    Totally ridiculous. Parents need to monitor their children. Obviously the phones were in the parents’ names and there are all kinds of ways to monitor their activities.
    Obviously the police do not have a lot to do around there.




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  11. Lit3Bolt says:

    I mean, this is America. If the police don’t create criminals, they’ll run out of low-hanging fruit to grab.




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  12. Franklin says:

    If you need to me to chime in agreement, then ding ding ding.




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  13. Toni says:

    Cumberland County District Attorney
    http://www.nccourts.org/

    117 Dick St #427, Fayetteville, NC 28301
    (910) 475-3010

    Regarding: Male, Teen charged with sex crimes
    Attn: Courier Box: 145310

    West Jr., William R. DA

    Your actions against these teens are egregious, at best. Are you up for re-election?
    Sexting could not have been considered when sexual exploitation laws were placed on the books. As such, these laws exist to prevent the sexual exploitation of children by adults..

    Your actions at trying to use the “Letter of the law” have caused you to lose your common sense. You will undoubtedly, ruin this young man’s life.

    I would urge your community to get rid of law enforcers who don’t use common sense or correct laws that need to be updated. You have too much power.

    Horrified,

    Toni Keddy
    California resident




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  14. C. Clavin says:

    North Carolina…what else would you expect?




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  15. Jane Doe says:

    Since you guys want to put innocent people in jail, put the girl in jail too… Hell, put everyone in jail…. sike… I’ll be his lawyer, this is a stupid law/charge. I would like to know who made this dumb arrest, he/she must’ve not had his/her Dunkin Donuts.




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  16. Tashia says:

    As a parent of a 16 year old young man and a 14 year old young lady, stories like this horrify me.

    At this very moment, I’m having a late dinner with my son and his girlfriend, discussing this article. Here’s the main points I have to cover with these kids now:
    1. U shouldn’t share nude photos of yourself unless you are an adult and its with someone you trust emphatically
    2. Even if u do trust the person, anything in electronic format can easily be shared and once it is, it’s out there forever. Know that before u do something you regret and can’t take back.
    3. Do NOT accept naked pictures sent to u by friends or anyone else. Delete immidiately and tell me so I can decide how to proceed.
    4. Your phone is your private property. Police, teachers, etc. have no right to search it. That requires a warrant (same as your house or your car).
    5. Don’t do anything stupid. (This is a broad statement that I often tell my kids. It means, DONT DO ANYTHING STUPID).

    Parents, it’s not enough to just talk to your kids about safe sex or waiting Until marriage anymore. You have to teach them about the law, their rights, consequences, EVERYTHING! This world is upside down sometimes and we have to teach them the best way to navigate it that we can. We must prepare them for what’s out there. At 16 they are considered adults by a court…so we must prepare them to THINK and protect themselves. Also, I’m not above going thru my kids phones. I do random checks all the time. The rule is, if I’m paying for it, then I get to look thru it.

    I pray there is someone in NC with common sense who can intercede in Copenings case, does just that.




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