TRENTON, N.J. — A 14-year-old New Jersey girl has been accused of child pornography after posting nearly 30 explicit nude pictures of herself on MySpace.com — charges that could force her to register as a sex offender if convicted.
The case comes as prosecutors nationwide pursue child-pornography cases resulting from kids sending nude photos to one another over cell phones and e-mail. Legal experts, though, could not recall another case of a child-porn charge resulting from a teen's posting to a social networking site.
MySpace would not comment on the New Jersey investigation, but the company has a team that reviews its network for inappropriate images. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tipped off a state task force, which alerted the Passaic County Sheriff's Office.
The office investigated and discovered the Clifton resident had posted the "very explicit" photos of herself, sheriff's spokesman Bill Maer said yesterday.
"We consider this case a wake-up call to parents," Maer said. The girl posted the photos because "she wanted her boyfriend to see them," he said.
Investigators are looking at individuals who "knowingly" committed a crime, he said, declining to comment further because the case was still being investigated.
The teen, whose name has not been released because of her age, was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography and distribution of child pornography. She was released to her mother's custody.
If convicted of the distribution charge, she would be forced to register with the state as a sex offender under Megan's Law, said state Attorney General Anne Milgram. She also could face up to 17 years in jail, though such a stiff sentence is unlikely.
Called "sexting" when it's done by cell phone, teenagers' habit of sending sexually suggestive photos of themselves and others to one another is a nationwide problem that has confounded parents, school administrators and law enforcers.
Prosecutors in states including Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin have tried stop it by charging teens who send and receive the pictures.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, a prosecutor has threatened to file child-porn charges against three teenage girls who authorities say took racy cell-phone pictures that ended up on classmates' cell phones.
On March 25, the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal judge to block Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. from filing charges, saying that the Pennsylvania teens didn't consent to having the picture distributed and that the image is not pornography, in any event.
Fifteen-year-old Marissa Miller said after a hearing yesterday in the case that she did nothing wrong when a friend took a picture of her and another girl in their bras.
Skumanick has threatened to file child pornography or open lewdness charges against the two girls unless they participate in an after-school program.
A girl photographed topless in a separate setting is also suing. The ACLU is seeking a temporary restraining order on their behalf.
The New York Times reported that U.S. District Judge James M. Munley said during yesterday’s hearing in Scranton that the girls’ lawsuit raised “serious constitutional issues.”
According to the Times, Judge Munley told Skumanick’s lawyer, A. James Hailstone: “It seems like the children seemed to be the victims and the perpetrators here. How does that make sense?”
State law “doesn’t distinguish between who took the picture and who was in it,” Hailstone was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
Munley has not ruled on the request. Skumanick says he won't take action until after the ruling.
Some observers — including the New Jersey mother behind the creation of Megan's Law — are criticizing the trend of prosecuting teens who send racy text messages or post illicit photos of themselves.
Maureen Kanka — whose daughter, Megan, became the law's namesake after she was raped and killed at age 7 in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender — blasted authorities for charging the 14-year-old girl.
The teen needs help, not legal trouble, she said.
"This shouldn't fall under Megan's Law in any way, shape or form. She should have an intervention and counseling, because the only person she exploited was herself."
The MySpace case in New Jersey may be a first, though.
"I'm not sure I've seen a prosecution like this coming out of a social-networking site," said Seth Kreimer, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Milgram, the New Jersey attorney general, could not recall another such case in New Jersey. She cautioned parents to get on those sites and monitor what their kids are talking about and posting.
"Unfortunately, youth don't have the same judgment as adults," she said, "and often, adults don't have the same technical savvy as the youth."