In the last few months, Tom Ransford has been part of several investigations involving child pornography. One of the cases involved an 11-year-old. But the cases have not involved pedophiles or commercial pornographers.

Instead, Ransford, a detective with the Sierra Vista Police Department, has been investigating teenagers who partake in sexting — the sharing of sexually explicit images. Several of those cases have resulted in referral for criminal charges.

Experienced detectives like Ransford, along with Tal Parker of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, understand most minors who make, possess, or exchange explicit images via sexting do so without knowing they are committing a crime.

However, under federal law, child pornography is described as images of minors that involve sexually explicit conduct, including nudity. The law has no exemption for images created by minors that depict minors, even with their consent.

Ransford says the police and the courts understand most kids who are sexting “are doing delinquent acts, not being deviants.” However, “by law they are trafficking in child pornography,” he explains.

Whether the kids were “simply having fun” is not addressed in the statutes, Ransford said. So when the circumstances call for it, detective Parker notes, “juveniles are prosecuted the same as adults.”

And in Cochise County, authorities are undertaking more prosecutions in hopes of stemming the tide of teen sexting.

Sexting goes mainstream

In 2010, the FBI reported 20 percent of teens sent a sexually suggestive text message, but only 16 percent said they had received a naked or semi-nude image. By 2014, an estimated 40 percent of all teens had posted or sent a sexually suggestive message, with 24 percent including naked or semi-nude images.

Those numbers are higher in 2017, Ransford believes, because there are a vast array of apps and social media outlets providing “more activities and opportunities” to share the images. He is also seeing “kids having access to the devices at a younger age.”

Those apps and outlets also make it easier for the images to be shared beyond the intended receiver. The website reports that 17 percent of teens who received an explicit image shared it at least once, and 55 percent of those secondary receivers also passed it along.

Detective Ransford has seen instances in which “the person you want to have that photo today is not someone you may want having the photo next week.” He warns that there is little control over what happens once the photo or video is created.

“Things live forever on the web,” Ranford notes, and the image, especially videos, could end up in the hands of commercial child pornographers and pedophiles.

Criminal charges vary

So far this year, Ransford has seen about a dozen cases at SVPD involving teen sexting that warrant criminal prosecution. He says he expects more once school is back in session.

Prosecuting a teen sexting case depends on many factors, noted CCSO’s Parker, including what evidence is available to detectives. Parker says “cell phone data is usually the easiest to recover” while SnapChat and other forums “are more difficult to impossible to recover data from.”

There is also the question of whether a sexting message was forwarded to a third party. Or whether someone used the sext to maliciously embarrass or harass anyone. In such cases, Parker understands a parent may not “want their child exposed any further or interviewed.”

Arizona has two statutes usually applied in teen sexting cases. The main one is ARS 8-309, Unlawful Use of an Electronic Communication Device by a Minor. It is a petty offense that can rise to a Class 3 misdemeanor, and can be used in cases where nudity is involved even if there is no overt sexual display.

Under 8-309 it is “unlawful for a juvenile to intentionally or knowingly use an electronic communication device to transmit or display a visual depiction of a minor that depicts explicit sexual material.” The offense carries a penalty of up to six months in jail. It is also unlawful for a minor “to intentionally or knowingly possess a visual depiction of a minor that depicts explicit sexual material” that was transmitted to the juvenile through an electronic device.

However, the circumstances in a case could lead to charges under ARS 13-3553, Sexual Exploitation of a Minor, a Class 2 felony. The statute is Arizona’s equivalent to a child pornography law, and sometimes requires mandatory sentencing.

Unlawful acts under 13-3553 include “knowingly recording, filming, photographing…electronically transmitting, possessing or exchanging any visual depiction in which a minor is engaged in exploitive exhibition or other sexual conduct.”

Parental safeguards

The FBI recommends parents frequently inspect browser history and limiting internet access to when a parent is present. “Parents must remain involved in their children’s lives and not surrender their parental oversight to a fear of technology,” according to the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Detective Ransford suggests parents frequently monitor the apps and files on their kids’ phones and computers. Cell phones can be set to prevent installation of new apps without a parental password, and other settings can restrict access to the photos and videos stored on a phone.

Parents who suspect their child is sending or receiving explicit photos or videos must act, says detective Parker. Immediately secure the phone, he advises. “You’re the parent. Take the phone to preserve the evidence.”

It is also important, says Parker, to ensure the device cannot be accessed remotely to prevent files and postings being “deleted or purged before being preserved.”

The next step is to contact law enforcement and give detectives permission to access the device or accounts. This is needed, explains Parker, to allow detectives “to search the phone forensically and aid in gathering information.”

It is important for parents “to be proactive,” advises Ransford. This is especially true, he says, if a minor may have been pressured into posing for an explicit image, or if a teen was the recipient of an unsolicited sexting message.

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