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Committee begins putting teeth in Florida teen sexting law

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Florida teens may not have been aware of it, but “sexting” by minors in the Sunshine State has essentially been legal for the past few years, thanks to a quirk in a law passed in the Legislature a few years ago.

This morning the House Justice Appropriations committee began the process of remedying that situation by unanimously approving HB 845, sponsored by Fort Lauderdale Democrat Bobby DuBose. His bill would require minors cited for a first violation of sexting in Florida to sign and accept a citation that authorizes the courts to order certain penalties, including requiring cyber-safety training. It would also officially count as a “first offense, “meaning a subsequent sexting violation would be a misdemeanor. A third offense would be felony.

The Legislature was compelled to address the issue after the Fourth District Court of Appeal discovered that a 2011 Florida law that attempted to distinguish between “kids being kids” in sending each other nude photos, and something more nefarious among adults. Because some kids were being classified as sex offenders.

But there then came a situation where a Broward County prosecutor wanted to bring charges against a minor who texted a picture of her own own vagina to a classmate because she was “bored.” However, Florida law doesn’t give any court jurisdiction of civil infractions by juveniles. Thus, no court in the state had the legal authority to hear a case involving minors sexting. The Broward prosecutor’s case against the wayward teen was thrown out by the court, a decision that the 4th DCA affirmed, blaming the Legislature for failing to recognize it had created an unenforceable law.

“Only the Legislature can add to the sexting statute to set out the procedure for the prosecution and determination if there has been a violation of the first offense,” the court ruled. “We are bound by the law as it was passed by the Legislature and not allowed to add language to or fill gaps in the statute.”

Palm Beach County state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo’s 2011 law made it so minors wouldn’t be charged with child pornography and labeled as sex offenders for sexting. The law also made it so minors wouldn’t be criminally charged for their first offense. Under that legislation, minors can be criminally charged for a second or third offense. But again, how can you be charged with a second offense if you haven’t been charged with a first one?

Abruzzo is sponsoring the bill in the state Senate.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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