Sex Offender Registration Possible for Colorado High School Students Caught Sexting

Multiple media outlets are reporting that high school students in Colorado exchanged hundreds of naked photos of themselves, which could lead to criminal convictions and sex offender registration requirements. 

Sexting, which involves sending and receiving sexually explicit messages, photos, and videos, is present in every high school.  School and law enforcement officials became aware of the sexting scandal at Canon City (Colorado) High School upon receiving an anonymous tip.  Their investigation revealed that a number of students had taken nude pictures of themselves and distributed them to other students.  It appeared that some of the photographs had been taken on school property.  Police have seized some of the phones, with one containing hundreds of images.  In response to the scandal, the school district has suspended some students.

But a school suspension is the least of these teenagers’ concerns.  The local district attorney is considering whether criminal charges are appropriate.  Students who participated in the sexting scandal could be charged with felonies and, if convicted, the students would have to register as sex offenders.  The district attorney told CNN that he would seek to have students register as sex offenders only if it was “absolutely necessary.”  He is urging students to turn over any digital devices that contain naked photographs, reminding them that continuing to possess the images is criminal behavior.

With most high school (and middle school) students having their own smart phones, sexting has become a huge problems for school systems.  Students often fail to recognize that most states have crimes that apply to sexting and, if caught, they could be arrested, prosecuted, and forced to register as sex offenders.

In Massachusetts, such conduct is prohibited by the child pornography statute.  Possession of child pornography occurs when a person possesses any image (including any photograph or video) of a person under the age of 18 who posing in a sexually-explicit or lewd manner.  Distribution occurs whenever these types of images are passed on to another person.  Therefore, if a high school student’s underage girlfriend sends him a naked picture of herself and he keeps it on his phone, he has committed the crime of possession of child pornography.  If he then forwards the photo to his friends, he has committed the crime of distribution of child pornography.  If that same high school student, who is under the age of 18, takes a naked picture of himself and sends it to his girlfriend, he has distributed child pornography (even if it is his own image).  Defendants who are convicted of child pornography possession or distribution in Massachusetts are required to register as sex offenders.

Fortunately, most police departments and school systems recognize that teenagers make bad decisions.  In the majority of cases where students are caught sexting, criminal charges do not result.  Attorney Spring has worked with local district attorney’s offices to resolve these types of cases prior to charges being filed.  However, there have been isolated cases across the country in which high schoolers have been criminally charged for sexting.  It is important to impress upon underage students that engaging in this conduct, even if it is widespread and consensual, constitutes an extremely serious crime.