Sexting charges in Sale Magistrate’s Court

THERE was silence in the court in Sale as year eight students from Yarram Secondary College learnt some valuable lessons about sexting.

At a special mock hearing at Sale Magistrates’ Court’s children’s court the students heard the story of teenagers Albert, Ernest and Nancy.

While they might sound like the wholesome heroes of an Enid Blyton novel these children, with the help of magistrate Fiona Hayes, police prosecutor Leading Senior Constable Karen MacDonald and Victoria Legal Aid lawyer Maie Gibney presenting the case for the defence, illustrated some of dangers of sending ‘sexy’ text messages for teens.

Many teenagers are not aware that, while under the age of 18, sending and receiving such images is illegal as it is classed as child pornography, and could result in them charged with the production, procurement, possession and/or distribution of child pornography as well as being placed on the sexual offenders register.

While the later is up to the discretion of the magistrate in children’s court, placement on the register is mandatory for anyone 18 years or older, even if the image was of a girlfriend or boyfriend a month shy of their 18th birthday.

In the case heard in the mock court on Tuesday, 15-year-old Albert, played by one of Yarram Secondary College’s male students, stood accused of the procurement and distribution of child pornography after asking his girlfriend Nancy to send him a nude photo of herself which he later sent to his best friend Ernest as a way of bragging about how attractive he thought she was.

While in the mock trial the photo never went any further than the two teens, and charges were laid by police who found the image on Ernest’s phone after he lost it at a party.

This is not always the case in high schools where images can be sent on to a number of classmates across social media after a tiff or as part of a prank, greatly humiliating the person in the image.

Such relaxed attitudes towards the taking and sending of naked or provocative images by teens is one of the reasons online bullying has become a major problem in secondary schools, with students taking the images because of peer pressure, thinking it sounds fun or as part of a misguided sense of self affirmation.

To help show students some of the lifelong consequences such charges might have on their lives, Albert was depicted as football player who volunteered with Auskick and had aspirations of becoming a Physical Education teacher.

He also had two younger brothers. While in the trial he was put on probation both magistrate Hayes and Leading Senior Constable MacDonald told students that had Albert received more serious charges or was placed on the sex offenders registry his dream of becoming a teacher would have been over and he wouldn’t have been able to volunteer with an organisation such as Auskick or anywhere he might have come into contact with young or vulnerable people.

Leading Senior Constable MacDonald told students that Albert’s relationship with his brothers might also have been placed under scrutiny and as a result of any charges his brothers might not of been able to have friends, or even young cousins stay at their house.

Also if placed on the sexual offenders register or other conditions of the court, he might have had limited access to mobile phones or computer devices and have to report all numbers, email addresses and online accounts to police with the prospect of going to court and facing jail time if he forgot to declare anything.

As part of the trial Magistrate Hayes ordered the destruction of Albert’s mobile phone as the only way of properly destroying the image.

In the court students heard a victim impact statement from “Nancy” talking about how she felt everyone was judging her, which made her retreat into herself and not be able to hold down a job.

It also mentioned fears of being mocked by her peers if they knew what she had done.

While it was not covered in the mock court, and often isn’t pushed for by police who try to broach the issue of sexting with a great deal of sensitivity, Nancy’s action of taking an image of herself was in fact illegal.

As the person taking the photo she was responsible for its production, which is prosecutable under the Victoria’s child pornography laws.

‘While a recent parliamentary inquiry in Victoria has recommended some changes to the law to create a more appropriate offence for sexting, the law as it currently stands means that young people found guilty of sexting can be placed on the Sex Offenders Register,’ Magistrate Hayes said.

As part of the after case debriefing, students were asked if they would want their parents, friends, employers to see such images and were told that even if they deleted such images a traceable electronic signature would remain, making taking a ‘sexy’ image of themselves the equivalent of taking all their clothes off in a public place where family, friends and complete strangers could be walking by.

Gippsland Community Legal Service principal lawyer Kate Windmill said the session was about more than just teaching students about the law.

“We want young people to understand that sexting is not just a legal problem, but an issue about respectful relationships.”

The lesson seemed to sink in with students who, with a show of hands, indicated they would delete the images and tell whoever was sending them that they didn’t think it was appropriate.

To end the session Leading Senior Constable MacDonald and representatives from Victoria Legal Aid’s Gippsland office, who organised and facilitated the event, told students it was their job to help them if they found themselves in a sticky situation when it came to the issue of sexting.

Leading Senior Constable MacDonald told students the police would much prefer to prevent the situation becoming a problem, by sitting down and explaining the consequences to teenagers, than to have to place charges.

For more information about the law on ‘sexting’ visit www.legalaid.vic.gov.au, or phone Legal Help on 1300 792 384 between 8.45am and 5.15pm Monday to Friday.

The Gippsland Community Legal Service can be phoned on 1800 004 402.