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The Dangers of Sexting in Wisconsin

Almost everyone these days has a cell phone. Everyday mobile technology is improving and making it easier for all of us to communicate with one another. An unintended consequence of this technology is the explosion of “sexting” in Wisconsin and other states. This blog briefly discusses the potential legal consequences of “sexting” in Wisconsin and offers some practical suggestions to reduce or eliminate the possibility of you getting involved in a sexting investigation.
The Dangers of Sexting in Wisconsin

Attorney Dave Stegall

What is Sexting?

“Sexting” generally refers to the act of sending sexually explicit messages, photos, or video primarily between mobile phones. Over the last several years the number of people “sexting” has increased while the ages of the people creating the sexual explicit images seem to be decreasing. 

Seizing upon the popularity of sexting, there have been apps developed such as Snapchat that are designed specifically as video messaging applications.  Using Snapchat, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and effortlessly distribute those images electronically. The user created content (i.e. photographs or videos) are known as "snaps."  What differentiates Snapchat from other social networking apps is that “snaps” have a self-destruct feature.  In fact, Snapchat’s claim to fame is that the sent file “self-destructs” after viewing in the sense that it disappears from the recipient’s mobile device and is deleted from Snapchat's servers. 

To give you some sense of how popular this particular app has become, according to Snapchat in May 2014, the app's users were sending 700 million photos and videos per day.

Because of its “self-destruct” reputation, the app is a popular tool among young people for transmitting sexually explicit material.  In fact, Snapchat claims that 50% of its users are between 13-17 years of age, which could present serious, perhaps unintended, criminal consequences for unwary users.

            As more and more people are discovering, Snapchat’s self-destruct feature does not delete files in the Mission: Impossible sense.  Snapchat has long claimed that it notifies senders when a receiver takes a screenshot of the snap on their mobile device.  However, it did not take long for people to realize there were very simple workarounds to evade the app’s screenshot detective.  This reality has led to the widespread dissemination of sexual explicit material that can have devastating consequences for both the person depicted in the photo/video and any other person “downstream” that disseminates or merely possesses the material.

Penalties for Sexting

            Unlike some other states, Wisconsin does not have a specific statute to combat sexting.  As a result prosecutors typically rely upon child pornography laws and related statutes.  The statutes at play in these cases are felonies and come with severe consequences.  For example, under our child pornography law, it is illegal to possess or view a visual depiction of a child engaged in sexual conduct—including depictions sent via mobile device.  Worse still, upon conviction there is a $500 fine for each image and a mandatory minimum prison term of at least three years of initial confinement! 

It is also a crime for an adult to cause a child to view sexual activity for the purpose of that adult’s sexual arousal or gratification.  If that was not bad enough, if a person is convicted of sexting with a minor he or she may be required, in addition to the fines and prison term described above, to register as a sex offender. 

Recommendations

            Based on my experience, the ease of sexting via mobile devices in addition to the false sense of security created by apps like Snapchat, makes sexting a very dangerous proposition in Wisconsin.  Below I offer five suggestions to help deal with this issue:

  1. Don’t Do It.  A simple rule of thumb is do not take any pictures of yourself that you would not want the most important people in your life (e.g. parents, employers, teachers, etc.) to see.  Remember, once you send an image you have no control where that image may travel to or how many people will view it.  
  2. If a child receives a “sext” he or she should disclose that information to an adult, consider reporting it to your local police, or report it online at www.cybertipline.org.
  3. Remember, if you forward a sexual picture of someone underage you are just as guilty as the original sender.
  4. Although it can be an uncomfortable topic for parents, the standard “sex talk” now should include a “technology talk” where topics such as sexting are discussed.
  5. Consult with an attorney immediately if you or a family member are being investigated or charged with a crime for sexting.  As described above, law enforcement is taking a very proactive approach to sexting investigations and the cases have the potential to have life altering consequences.
     

I hope you found this blog informative.  I welcome any comments or questions.  Please feel free to contact me directly at dstegall@lawtoncates.com.

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