Washington sexting bill aims to shield teens from adult law

Legislation aimed at keeping youth who send sexually explicit texts from being charged under adult sex crime laws has cleared the Legislature in Washington state.

The bill , which passed late Wednesday night, would create a new group of crimes reserved specifically for minors who are caught with explicit images of other minors, attempting to solve what lawmakers described as a paradox in current law, where even youth who report a sexual picture or video can themselves be potentially charged with a felony — and even forced to register as sex offenders.

A 2018 survey by the American Civil Liberties Union found 22 states had passed legislation that differentiates between teen and adult offenders, with varying specifics.

Under the Washington bill, most of the new youth-only crimes would be set as misdemeanors, a status that would exempt convicted youth from having to register.

Sexting — a combination of the words "sex" and "texting" — refers to sending explicit photos or videos over messaging services, a practice that has gained some popularity among teens who grew up with cellphones.

"This is a statute written for dealing with child pornography, at a time when no one had cellphones," said Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Redmond Democrat who voted for the Washington bill. "No one could even anticipate that we would live in the culture that we currently do, with our children actually sexting."

Along with being part of flirtation or romantic relationships for some youth, sexting has over time become a factor in bullying as well, when minors lose control of images that end up being shared beyond romantic partners.

Under current Washington law, the statutes that criminalize youth exchanging such images are the same ones originally written to target adults for child pornography, which include broad language banning the possession, production, or exchange of explicit images of minors. As felonies, many child pornography crimes also require registration in the state's public sex offender database - penalties that even critics of the bill acknowledged might be too harsh.

Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican, voted against the bill but said he could understand the basic predicament it tried to address.

"We might not approve of it, we might not like it, but we can understand where maybe two teenagers who are in some sort of relationship send images," he said, adding it was "reasonable" to reduce penalties for sexting in some cases.

"But this bill deals with far, far more than that," Padden said.

The bill would create a separate set of crimes only applicable to under-18 offenders, making it a misdemeanor instead of a felony for a minor to exchange images of another minor, with an exception for images of some types of sex acts.

Exchanging images of a child 12 or younger would remain a felony, as would the sale of images of another minor, but under new, minors-only criminal definitions.

Padden and other Republicans said that was overly broad.

Democratic supporters responded the bill was limited in its scope, and was strictly aimed at keeping minors caught sexting off the sex offender registry.