Sunday, June 24, 2018
Public safety

John Romano: A case of child porn and — maybe — a lesson learned

They're just kids.

That's the argument, and it is a persuasive one.

When a 15-year-old girl in Pasco County is charged with possessing child porn because she had a cellphone photo of two similar-aged classmates engaged in oral sex, it is natural to wonder whether legal zeal has replaced common sense.

Lecture her. Punish her. Put the fear of God in her.

But arrest her?

In this case, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said unique circumstances necessitated a harsher response. And, after a conversation Wednesday with Detective William Lindsey from the cyber crimes division, I tend to agree.

Let's start with this basic truth:

Teens are taking sexually themed photos and videos of themselves and each other. Not all teens. Not even a majority. But enough that Lindsey says several cases a month are being brought to his attention.

The majority of these episodes are resolved quietly and without criminal charges. There's a statute on the books that covers underage sexting in the same sort of fashion as underage smoking or drinking.

"We look at every case individually and try to determine what is going to serve the greater good,'' Lindsey said. "Does it serve a purpose to put on handcuffs and pursue felony charges, or does it make more sense to confront the child in front of their parents?

"There are cases where we are able to handle it that way with the parents, and we are happy to do that.''

Regrettably, this situation was a little more involved. The 15-year-old girl charged in the case was acquainted with the 14-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy involved in the act. They were even aware she was taking the photo.

When the two girls had a falling out, the 15-year-old began circulating the photo around Wiregrass Ranch High School. She also sent a copy to an 18-year-old student knowing it would be posted on Twitter along with the name of the 14-year-old girl.

"This was a malicious act with the sole intent of hurting the other girl. If this was just two kids sending pictures to each other, it would have been different,'' Lindsey said. "This photo is out there now on the Internet for any pedophile to find tomorrow. Or how about five years from now when a prospective employer Googles her name and that picture pops up?

"How detrimental is that?''

Even more disturbing is the number of recent cases across the nation of teenagers committing suicide after sexually explicit photos were posted on the Internet or shared between classmates.

In this case, the 15-year-old could have been charged with three child porn felonies — taking the photo, possessing it for several months and transmitting it.

The Sheriff's Office opted to pursue only the possession charge, and hopefully the State Attorney's Office will adopt a similarly lenient position as the case proceeds.

The important thing, Lindsey said, is for parents to understand they need to monitor their children's computers and phones and for teens to understand the consequences of taking and distributing photos.

"Kids are very aware of what's happening on social media, and we're hoping news like this gets around,'' Lindsey said. "When they see a 15-year-old getting arrested, hopefully it will convince them that this is not a good idea.''

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