published Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Bill would lighten teen sexting penalty in Georgia

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The age of consent is 16 in Georgia.

But teens can face felony child pornography charges for "sexting," or sending one another nude photos via cellphone.

That would change under legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jay Neal, R-Chickamauga, that would make it a misdemeanor for someone at least 14 years old willingly to send a sexually explicit photo to someone who's 18 or younger.

"We don't want to criminalize stupid teenage behavior," said Neal, who referred to it as a "Romeo and Juliet clause."

"We don't want to make a felony out of it. It would still be a misdemeanor." said Neal, who preaches occasionally at his church in Ringgold, Ga. "We certainly are not encouraging that type of behavior. We still wanted them to understand it is not appropriate."

Under the bill, it still would be a felony for a teen -- for example, after a bitter break-up -- to distribute the explicit photos to harass, intimidate or embarrass another teen, or for commercial purposes.

Neal's House Bill 156 passed the state House and Senate without a single vote in opposition. He expects Gov. Nathan Deal will sign it.Catoosa County, Ga., Sheriff Gary Sisk said he doesn't have any "heartburn" over the bill.

"It's more of a moral issue, not a criminal issue," he said. "We're not talking about pedophiles."

"The age of consent is 16," Sisk said. "Two 17-year-olds could have sex, and it's not against the law. But if one of them decided to take [and send an explicit] picture of themselves, they would now be in violation of the law."

A teen convicted of felony sexting would have to register as a sex offender, Sisk said.

"That stays with them for the rest of their lives," he said.

Walker County, Ga., Sheriff Steve Wilson said a felony conviction can limit a person's college and career options.

"It's like a ball and chain around your ankle," he said.

"The question is, should they get a break and not be charged with a felony?" Wilson asked. "I think so. I think they should probably be slapped with a misdemeanor."

"Right now, a D.A. had no other options than either to turn the other cheek or prosecute some serious felonies," Sisk said.

Lawmakers in other states have considered similar legislation. In 2009, Utah was one of the first states to make teen sexting a misdemeanor, not a felony.

Neal's bill also makes it illegal for someone to use online services to contact a child's parents or guardian to arrange to have sex with a child. Current law only makes it illegal for an adult to solicit the child directly or someone the adult believes is the child.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation asked Neal to introduce that.

"It closed that loophole," Neal said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at 423-757-6651 or tomarzu@timesfreepress.com.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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