Monday, May 21, 2018
Public safety

Pasco girl, 15, charged under porn law set up to protect children

WESLEY CHAPEL — It often starts with a kind of puppy love. In many cases it's lust-blind teenagers consumed with exploring each other. Then impulses and hormones guide thumbs over touch screens. Racy photos flit between cellphones faster than rumors can be spread. And in come cases, when laws don't make distinctions, children go to jail.

The arrest last week of a 15-year-old high school student illustrates the long reach of laws meant to curtail sex crimes and exploitation of children. The girl, a student at Wiregrass Ranch High School, faces a charge of possession of child pornography for having a picture in her phone of two friends engaged in oral sex. The friends in the picture were 14 and 15 years old.

The teens had given consent for the photo to be taken, said Pasco sheriff's Detective William Lindsey. But they had since had a falling out with the girl who took the photo. In an act of vengeance, she sent it to some friends and displayed it on her phone to others. One student posted the photo to Twitter.

On May 21, one of the students in the photo reported the incident to a school resource officer. At the same time, the girl who took the photo had her phone confiscated for cheating on an exam — snapping photos of test forms. A teacher found the explicit photo on the girl's phone and brought it in to meet waiting deputies.

Though she produced, stored and transmitted the photo, she was arrested Tuesday on a charge of possession of child pornography — the least of three possible charges.

Under Florida statute, that's a third-degree felony, punishable by five years in prison.

"Any time you take a photograph or a video of children, anyone under the age of 18, engaged in sexual conduct, it's considered production of child pornography," Lindsey said in a press conference Tuesday. "It's illegal to take the photograph or the video. It's illegal to possess it and it's illegal to transmit it."

The case also represents another example of how technology isn't necessarily changing our behavior, but it's certainly changing the consequences of it.

Instances of children being charged with sex crimes against other children are not new, not even for Pasco County.

In March, Fivay High School made national headlines when a 15-year-old boy was arrested after deputies said he used a cell phone to record two unsuspecting teens having sex in the school library and sent the video to a friend. He was charged with creating and transmitting child pornography.

"It's child pornography," said Sheriff Chris Nocco at the time of the arrest. "You send it out, you're going to have the same consequences."

• • •

Most teens, though, don't know the consequences. Even if they did, at their age they aren't equipped yet to consider ramifications, said Nicole Pittman, who studies the consequences of sex offender laws applied to children. They act the only way they know how.

If something like the Wiregrass High case happened in the 1950s, Pittman said, it would have been one girl leaking a rumor about another. Word would have spread and may have ruined a reputation. It may have resulted in detention.

The vengeance in the Pasco case is the same kind of behavior, she said. Instead, it was a picture on a cell phone and it's being classified as a felony, which could put a 15-year-old girl on the sexual offender registry for life "for making a split-second, very teenage decision," Pittman said.

"At the end of the day, this girl is going to be in the same category as a 40-year-old man that molested children," she said.

In a paper titled "Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the U.S.," Pittman wrote about children who are visited by armed officers twice a week, barred from school zones and subjected to residency restrictions. They have a hard time finishing school and keeping jobs, and the stigmas follow them to their death beds.

Florida statutes make no age distinction about who gets prosecuted for having explicit photos of children. Lindsey, the detective in the case, said they are written in such a way that even a teen with a sexually explicit photo of himself or herself could be subject to arrest.

The result, Pittman said: The same laws set up to protect children have turned to prosecuting them.

Lindsey said he and his colleagues use discretion in the cases they see. He's had other cases where a boyfriend and girlfriend were caught sharing photos between themselves. Those times, he said, he talks to them or refers them to counseling.

"There's other ways to deal with these cases where we're not criminalizing it," Lindsey said. "The decision to make the arrest is based on the totality of circumstances."

He draws the line at ill intent.

He pointed to the Wiregrass High case, where photos were shared after a falling out between students, he said.

"This was a malicious campaign to smear the girl," Lindsey said.

He said that he plans to arrest the 18-year-old who posted the photo on Twitter, but indicated he will take into account that the student only recently became an adult.

Case records are not available because of the girl's age. Bjorn Brunvand, a Clearwater criminal defense lawyer, said the case may be referred to the State Attorney's Office, which will make the ultimate decision about whether to proceed with criminal charges.

"Clearly that's not what we envision when we think about a sex offender," he said. "I can't imagine that the legislators contemplated this scenario when the laws were enacted. What they contemplated was adults that were in possession of commercially (produced child pornography), not sexually explicit pictures of teens shared by teens."

Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

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