Courts & Crime

Sexting upends conventional law enforcement wisdom

FORT WORTH — Teenagers text-messaging explicit photos of themselves or classmates is undeniably a mammoth lapse in judgment.

But is it a crime?

It's a question that experts say has confounded law enforcement agencies nationwide as the trend known as "sexting" grows in popularity. It’s also one that Tarrant County authorities will have to answer after allegations were made last week at a Keller district middle school.

A girl alerted her mother about a group of students at Hillwood Middle School who were sending one another explicit photos of female students, according to Fort Worth police. Some parents said the students involved were in a club called The Cause.

The mother notified officials at the school, which is in far north Fort Worth. School officials then contacted police.

Investigators have obtained photographs from students' cellphones and will turn them over to Tarrant County juvenile prosecutors, who will determine whether they are evidence of a crime, said Sgt. Pedro Criado, a police spokesman. In a letter sent to parents last week, the principal explained that sexting can be a felony.

Sexting has already led to prosecution of several teenagers across the U.S. for obscenity, even child pornography. One Florida teen was placed on a sex offender registry.

The severity of the charges has led some states to create specific misdemeanor charges related to sexting among teens. This summer, the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to prosecutors, lawmakers and educators in Ohio urging them not to pursue criminal charges against teens for sexting, calling the punishment too harsh.

Under Texas laws prohibiting child pornography, someone in possession of a nude picture of someone under 18 can go to prison or juvenile detention. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott warned in May that teenagers' transmissions of explicit electronic images could meet the definition of child pornography and that teens could face 10 years in prison.

About 20 percent of teen girls have sent nude or seminude photos electronically, according to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

"One consequence that no one fully expected to come out of this growing trend is the legal entanglements," said Bill Albert, spokesman for the group, which released a report on sexting this year. "I think what you are seeing is attorney generals and law enforcement agencies trying to figure out what to do about this stuff."