About a dozen cases of juveniles sexting — a crime in which a young person can be both victim and perpetrator — have been investigated in Washington County in the past three years.
While only a couple of cases of sexting — disseminating nude or pornographic images on cell phones — have resulted in teenagers going through the juvenile justice system, it is a crime that can come back to haunt them years later, said Detective Shane Blankenship of the Hagerstown Police Department.
“Once the picture is out there, it’s out there. There’s no bringing it back,” said Blankenship, who is assigned to investigate Child Advocacy Center cases for the department.
A 14-year-old girl who sends an inappropriate image to a boyfriend could find herself being rejected by the college of her choice or an employer, he said.
“More and more colleges and universities are checking into the online activities of their applicants ... Businesses, too,” Blankenship said. “This stuff can come back to haunt you.”
“One thing we wanted to get out, especially to parents and guardians, is not only its prevalence, but that it can be a felony,” Assistant State’s Attorney Brett Wilson said.
Juveniles taking photos of themselves or other minors are manufacturing child pornography, he said.
The act of sending an image can be distribution of child pornography, Wilson said.
A child who takes pictures of himself or herself and sends it electronically to someone else can be a perpetrator and a victim, he said.
In most of the local cases of sexting, the juveniles were referred to the Department of Social Services for counseling and other services, Wilson said. In more serious cases, a child can be referred to the Department of Juvenile Services, which has a range of sanctions, including detention, Wilson said.
“The goal of these cases is not punishment,” but stopping or preventing the behavior, Wilson said.
The consequences for an adult, for example a 19-year-old man receiving an image of a 15-year-old girl, are more serious, Wilson said. The penalty for misdemeanor possession of child pornography is up to five years in prison, Wilson said.
If that 19-year-old man took the image of a minor and sent it to someone, that is manufacturing and distributing child pornography, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for a first offense, Wilson said.
Convictions for those crimes also require registration with the state as a sex offender for 15 or 25 years, he said.
Manufacturing and distribution can apply if someone copies a file and passes it along, Wilson said.
“And there’s the potential for federal prosecution, as well,” Blankenship said.
That does not require that images be sent across state lines, Wilson said. Federal authorities can invoke the Interstate Commerce Clause if the cell phone or camera used to make an image crossed state lines — and most of those devices are manufactured overseas, he said.
That was the case recently when a Washington County man was indicted by a federal grand jury on child pornography charges, Wilson said.
Most of the investigations here came about through accidental discoveries, usually by a parent or other adult, Blankenship said.
However, the grapevine among middle and high school students is such that, once juveniles become aware of an investigation, images are quickly scrubbed from cell phones, Wilson said.
“By the time a school resource officer or police get there ... the pictures are deleted,” he said.
However, images that get on the Internet are there forever and often are cataloged by law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, Wilson said.
Suspected images of child pornography are compared against the catalog of verified child pornography images for matches, Wilson said.
“A parent needs to take the extra step by being very vigilant,” Blankenship said.
Parents should be aware of the technology available to their children and cell phones should be on the parents’ accounts so they know with whom their children are communicating, he said.