Over the past few years, the concept of dating has gone more digital than ever before. People access more online dating, online "hook up" sites, and other ways to meet new people than in previous years. If you search for "dating apps" in the App Store on the iPhone, there are over 3,000 results of dating and hook-up type applications available for download. A good portion of the people that access these sites and accompanying smart phone applications seem to be teenagers.
Teenagers also seem to be the new target when it comes to prosecuting sex crimes. Technological and digital growth have made it easier than ever for teens to violate laws that they don't even realize exist, even when they are engaging in consensual and mutual behaviors with other teenagers. Many of the cases prosecuted involve sexting.
The one area of technological and digital growth that has teenagers violating laws the most is the advancement of cell phones and the situations they put teens in. Cell phones are not only capable of sending text or picture messages, which can be easily monitored by parents, but they are also capable of downloading applications through which communication can take place that is not easily traceable.
For example, the smart phone application "Snapchat" was the cause of a "sexting" epidemic within Michigan high schools that broke out last year. Snapchat is a smart phone application that allows people to send and receive picture or video messages that disappear within a matter of seconds. However, other applications were created, such as "SaveSnap" and "SnapSaver," that automatically save Snapchat pictures to a phone once they are opened. Teenage boys and girls alike were sending explicit pictures back and forth to each other using these smart phone applications and through regular messaging. Eventually, some of those involved started a collection of the explicit photos and it was reported. The police began to investigate and the teens involved could have been facing felony criminal liability for distributing and receiving child sexually abusive material.
As the law reads in Michigan, a minor for purposes of the child sexually abusive material statute is someone under the age of 18. So, even if a girl who is 15 years old takes an explicit picture of her own person and sends it to her 16-year-old boyfriend for his private viewing, both are guilty of a crime in Michigan, even if the sending of the picture was consensual and mutual between the two people involved.
As another example, the smart phone application "Hot or Not" was recently featured in a Michigan case involving consensual sex between two teenagers, however, one was 19 years old and the other was 14 years old, which is under the age of consent. "Hot or Not" is a website and smart phone application where you can post a picture of yourself and people rank your "hotness" on a scale from 1 - 10. There are also extra features where you can chat with people if you both like each other's pictures. As a term of use for this application, users must be over 17, however, it doesn't mean that a person cannot lie about their age to use the application, like the 14 year-old involved in this case did.
The two teens in this case met through the smart phone application, and the 19-year-old boy traveled to Michigan to meet and have consensual sex with the 14 year old girl, who he thought was 17. Though the sexual encounter was consensual, the young man was charged and ended up pleading guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, a crime that requires jail time and registry with the Michigan Sex Offender Registry for life. To see the full story, click here.
Unfortunately, in Michigan, as of now, mistake of age is not an available defense component to a crime. However, the issue is currently under the Michigan Supreme Court in the case People v. Kilgo.
There are also other smart phone applications like "Tinder," which is similar to "Hot or Not," "Kik" and "WhatsApp" which are messenger type applications, that allow teenagers to secretly message without using text message plans and make it easier to communicate with new people, and that can also unknowingly cause teenagers to commit criminal acts.
It is important for parents, especially parents of teenagers, to know what their children are involved when it comes to technology because they could be committing a crime and not even know it. It is equally as important that as parents, you protect the rights of your child, if an investigation should arise from their digital activities, by hiring an attorney before you allow them to be questioned by law enforcement.
The Smith Blythe, PC is highly experienced in defending sex crimes, like the ones mentioned above. Our office is highly dedicated to defending teenage defendants because we know how serious a conviction of criminal sexual conduct, or other sex crime, could be for their futures. If you are a parent of a teenager and he or she is facing sex crime charges, or you fear charges could be brought, call our office to set up an appointment.