An adult can face sex crime charges for Internet "sexting" in Virginia

Sending suggestive pictures on a cellphone or over the Internet can result in state and federal penalties.

Americans are accustomed to a wide range of privacy protections under the U.S. Constitution, including protection for some private behavior that involves explicit images. The media has widely covered a new sexual behavior that has evolved with the proliferation of the Internet and cell phones: sexting.

Sexting is the taking or sharing of nude or sexually suggestive photographs over the Internet or using a cell phone. While this behavior has been often discussed in the media as something in which teens engage, adults in Virginia need to remember that if they engage in this behavior - even when the image sent digitally is meant to remain between consenting adults - in some situations they could face state or federal criminal charges as a result.

A danger faced by an adult who sexts with another consenting adult is that once the image is sent, there is no control over who may view it or whether it could be opened in a public place, which could increase the possibility of criminal charges.

Obviously, it is a crime for an adult to send a nude picture to a minor, but an 18-year-old dating a 17-year-old may not think about this if he or she sends a picture of him or herself to a boy or girlfriend who is still a minor. In addition, a college student who engages in such behavior may face not only a criminal investigation and potential charges, but also university or college disciplinary proceedings.

Some of the Virginia state crimes that could potentially be charged for sexting behavior include:

  • Stalking
  • Distributing an obscene item
  • Photographing him or herself obscenely for distribution
  • Displaying pornography or obscene video material to children
  • Engaging in obscene sexual display
  • Engaging in indecent exposure
  • Engaging in an obscene exhibition or performance
  • And others

Many of these crimes have more serious penalties if a computer is used to commit them, if children are involved or for repeat offenses.

Such behavior may also violate federal criminal laws, especially since sending images electronically easily crosses state lines.

What are the penalties?

Virginia and federal pornography and obscenity laws are harsh and may not take into account whether the person intended that anyone other than the recipient see the image or meant the sexted image to be part of an intimate relationship between consenting adults. Conviction could result in years of prison time as well as requirement that the defendant register as a sex offender. In addition, significant harm can result to career, reputation and personal and family relationships.

Anyone facing an investigation or charges for a sex crime related to sexting, even if it was an innocent mistake, should seek legal advice and reputation immediately. Being in such a situation can be confusing and extremely frightening. A defense attorney will launch an investigation on behalf of the accused, exploring potential defenses like unreasonable search and seizure of electronic devices or inadequate intention to commit the offense.

A defense lawyer will advise the client of the pros and cons of negotiation with the prosecution and if necessary advocate vigorously at trial. Facing such charges is an extremely serious situation and not one to face without an experienced attorney on your side.