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  1. Florida Politics

Bill to make sexting law enforceable gaining traction in Legislature

TALLAHASSEE — Four years after championing a law that inadvertently made sexting an unenforceable crime in Florida, a state senator is pushing to close that loophole.

The Legislature in 2011 set out to update out-of-date statutes to address minors who send nude photos to other minors.

"Unfortunately it was not written in the proper posture," said Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, the sponsor of the 2011 bill and a new proposal making its way through the Legislature this year.

The proposed fix would make it possible to actually charge juveniles with sexting. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved the measure Monday.

Though unenforceable under current law, sexting was once a crime that had a severe impact on young Floridians who were convicted of it.

Until 2011, prosecutors' only option for filing charges in sexting cases was under child pornography laws. As a result, children who were charged faced felony charges with steep penalties that reached far into their lives, including years of probation and having to register as a sex offenders.

Call it a case of the law taking time to catch up with technology.

As a remedy, the House and Senate in 2011 voted unanimously to define sexting and make it a crime separate from child pornography under state law.

In doing so, they made a first offense a noncriminal charge. But Florida law doesn't grant any court jurisdiction over juvenile civil offenses.

After a West Palm Beach judge realized cases under the law could not by tried in any court, it became clear that an update was needed.

The bill Abruzzo is now shepherding through the Senate would keep the penalties codified in 2011, but ensure the law could be enforced. It gives minors charged with a first sexting offense a choice: Appear in court or accept the noncriminal consequences by doing eight hours of community service, paying a $60 fine or completing a cyber-safety course.

Under the bill, second offenses could be charged as either civil citations or misdemeanors, third offenses are misdemeanors and fourth offenses are third-degree felonies.

Although the 2011 law sought to loosen penalties for children, adults who share nude photos of children still face child pornography charges. And the bills currently moving through the House and Senate don't change that.

"Our intentions have always been to make sure that the punishment fits the crime and we're not unjustly making our children register as sex offenders just for youthful indiscretions," Abruzzo said.

Last week, Abruzzo's bill was a near casualty of a Monday afternoon committee meeting with a jam-packed agenda that Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, almost didn't get through.

"It's 6 o'clock, baby," Evers said to Abruzzo. "We gotta get it next week."

Abruzzo looked upset and said there might not be enough weeks left this session to pass the bill through the requisite committees and gain approval from the full Senate.

Now, however, with the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's blessing and unanimous support from the first two committee stops in the House, Abruzzo is feeling more confident, if not overly optimistic.

"I think we have a very good possibility of getting it on the floor of the Senate," he said Monday.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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