Unsuspecting Minors Commit Felonies With Cell Phone Porn

By Connie Schultz

December 13, 2008 5 min read

The teenage girl wanted to taunt an ex-boyfriend.

So she used her cell phone to photograph herself in various stages of undress and then attached a simple message:

"This is what you are missing."

Then she clicked "send."

Before long, her nude photos meant for one boy were popping up on the cell phones of other boys at her suburban Cleveland high school. Two of her girlfriends' naked photos also started making the rounds.

All eight of the students involved were between the ages of 14 and 16. And all of them were caught. Not one knew that circulating the photos is illegal until a school administrator caught wind of their game and called the police.

Thomas O'Malley is the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court judge who heard the case, but it was Thomas O'Malley the father who figured out the punishment.

O'Malley knew that a growing number of minors across the country are forwarding nude photos of themselves and their friends via cell phones. As Anthony Bondra, a lawyer for one of the boys in this case, told me, "It's an epidemic, from California to Maine."

O'Malley also knew that some of these teenagers, including a 17-year-old girl in Columbus, Ohio, have been labeled sexual predators for up to 10 years after getting caught.

"Imagine that," he said, "having that label follow you around for a decade."

None of the kids in this case had prior criminal records, and they and their parents were duly mortified over the severity of their crime. Still, O'Malley wanted to sentence the teens in a way that would help other kids, too. He didn't figure out just how he was going to do that until he sat down to dinner with his own four teenagers.

"Give me your cell phones," he told them.

One by one, he checked his kids' phones for stored photos. To his relief, there were no naked pictures.

"Do you guys know that it's against federal law to send nude photos of you or your friends on your cell phones?" he asked them. "Did you know that if you get caught, you can be labeled a sexual predator?"

Not one of them answered "yes."

"They all looked at me with such puzzled faces," O'Malley said. "I immediately told them: 'You should tell your friends that. You should make sure your friends know the law.'"

And that's when the judge figured out the sentence for the three girls and five boys who did get caught.

Last week, O'Malley ordered each of them to find 25 teenagers younger than 18 at their school and ask them one question:

"Did you know that possessing, viewing or sending nude or partial nude photos or images of a minor (someone under 18 yrs. of age) using (a) cell phone is a felony and could result in you being jailed for a minimum of six (6) months up until the age of 21?"

The teens only have to record the students' first names, but each of them has to ask a different set of 25 kids, O'Malley said. They will report back to the judge with their findings in January.

In the meantime, O'Malley has tried to reach out to high schools in the Cleveland area to help educate their students about the dangers of circulating naked pictures on their cell phones. He sent letters to 20 high schools, both public and private, offering to speak to their students.

Not one high school has responded.

Perhaps school administrators think their students already know better.

Lawyer Bondra wants them to think again.

His client already has completed the survey. Of the 25 kids he asked, 23 did not know it is against the law to send naked photos of underage classmates.

That's a total of two who knew it is illegal.

O'Malley hopes that parents across the country will have the tough talk with their own teenagers. He also has some advice for parents who think their kids never would do such a thing.

"Check their cell phones," he said. "Click on their pictures."

And do it today.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House: "Life Happens" and "… and His Lovely Wife." To find out more about Connie Schultz (cschultz@plaind.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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