Colorado scandal reveals complex legal issues sexting minors can face

Minors in Colorado should know how sexting is treated under state law and understand the consequences that can follow this type of alleged sex offense.

Last November, reports surfaced of hundreds of students in Canon City, Colorado, consensually exchanging nude photos. As many Greeley residents who followed this story know, under current state laws, these students could have been prosecuted for committing various felony sex offenses. This widely publicized case helps illustrate the serious consequences and complicated considerations that minors in Colorado may face if they are caught sexting.

What are the potential penalties?

NBC News explains that, like many other states, Colorado currently lacks a law that specifically addresses the issue of teen sexting. Instead, any possession of sexually explicit images of minors is considered a felony offense. As a result, the associated consequences may be steep.

People convicted of child pornography offenses in Colorado may face jail time as well as mandatory sex offender registration. According to The New York Post, possession can be punished by up to 18 months in prison. People convicted of production or distribution may face anywhere from four to 12 years of incarceration. However, it's important to note that these penalties apply to people charged as adults. Teens young enough to be charged with juvenile offenses could face reduced penalties.

Can personal consent provide a defense?

NBC News states that Colorado law does not allow minors under the age of 18 to provide consent to the production or dissemination of nude photos. Therefore, in extreme cases, minors who took personal photographs without necessarily sharing them could theoretically still be charged with possession of child pornography. The New York Post notes that in these cases, state law treats minors as both perpetrators and victims.

Can other factors be taken into consideration?

In some situations, prosecutors might decline to press criminal charges against minors who have been caught sexting. According to CNN, in the recent Canon City case, the district attorney made this decision in part because the minors in question hadn't engaged in other offenses, such as the following:

  • Coercing others into taking or sharing explicit photos
  • Sharing the images with adults
  • Posting the nude photos online
  • Engaging in unlawful sexual behavior

However, the district attorney has warned students that they could still face charges in the future if they keep any nude photos or engage in sexting again.

What can teens accused of sexting do?

It's important to note first that the family members of accused minors should be careful to avoid searching for or viewing any explicit images. In Colorado, only a small number of professionals, such as peace officers, can legally possess explicit materials that feature minors. In the recent case, the district attorney warned parents that if they uncovered explicit content on their children's phones, they could also be charged with felonies.
These serious ramifications underscore why it is important for minors facing any type of sex crime charge to consider discussing the situation with a defense attorney. An attorney may provide insights into the relevant laws and precedents. An attorney also may be able to help a minor craft a legal defense or seek an outcome that will be less damaging in the long run.