Can I Be Penalized for Sexting in Michigan?

With the growing prevalence of technology and social media platforms connecting teenagers, a new arena has arisen for the spread of harmful material. Like many states, Michigan criminalizes the possession, creation, and dissemination of sexually explicit material to or involving minors under the age of 18. Keep reading today’s blog to learn more about how Michigan penalizes sexting for juvenile and adult offenders alike.

Michigan’s Teen Sexting Laws

Sexting involves sharing sexually explicit photos by electronic means, such as by text message, social media, chat boards, or messaging. Michigan does not have specific sexting legislation, though sexting images of minors (individuals younger than 18 years old) often falls under the state’s preexisting child pornography laws.

Be aware that teens often erroneously think that consensual sexting is legal, but that’s not how Michigan law sees it. Sexting images of minors can result in felony penalties for anyone who creates, shares, or possesses the image, even if the minor themselves create a sexually explicit image or send a sexually explicit image to another minor. In other words, the law doesn’t require that the image be of another minor, so a minor who takes or sexts a nude selfie also violates the law. Under Michigan’s child pornography law (also referred to as “child sexually abusive material”), individuals can be penalized for soliciting, creating, sharing, or possessing images of a minor engaged in a sexual act, which includes sexual intercourse, masturbation, or lewd exhibition of nudity.

Penalties and Sentencing

An adult or minor can be prosecuted under the law for sexting-related activity. Below are the penalties for violations of Michigan’s child pornography laws, as well as separate penalties for using technology to commit the violation.

A person who knowingly possesses a sexually explicit image of a minor faces up to 4 years of prison time and a $10,000 fine, and sharing or distributing a sexually explicit image of a minor can result in up to 7 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. If the person shares such an image with a minor and not an adult, though, the penalties will be a 2-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine. Note that the image does not need to be of a minor but rather sent to a minor.

The harshest penalty, a 20-year felony, applies to producing sexually explicit images of a minor or persuading a minor to produce a sexually explicit image. Note that this 20-year penalty can be an additional consequence to the possession and distribution penalties. For example, if a person asks for a nude photo of their 17-year-old partner via text and the partner does so, the individual could face an additional 20-year sentence on top of the 4 years for possession.

Adult and Juvenile Court

Minors under the age of 17 generally fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. Juvenile court judges tend to have broader discretion in imposing punishments, such as ordering community service, treatment, monitoring, and curfews. Note that in juvenile court, the minor does not receive an adult conviction but rather an “order of disposition.” Be aware that teenagers aged 17 to 19 are considered adults in Michigan’s justice system, though as of October 1, 2021, the state will automatically place 17-year-olds under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court instead of an adult court.

In serious circumstances, Michigan law does allow judges to transfer certain minors to adult court, including minors age 14 to 16 accused of a felony. In an adult court, a minor would face adult penalties, including prison time and sex offender registration. Any individual convicted of child pornography (creating, sharing, or possessing child sexually abusive material) must register as sex offenders in Michigan, and registration applies to adults and minors transferred to adult court.

Federal Law

Depending on the circumstances, sexting can be a crime under federal law. There is no federal law specifically addressing sexting, though the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act of 2003 makes it illegal for people to use a computer to send or receive:

  • any obscene visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct;
  • any image of a minor actually engaging in sexually explicit conduct; or
  • any material containing child pornography.

Federal law also makes it a crime for someone to cause a minor to take part in sexually explicit conduct in order to portray that conduct. Be aware that parents are included in those who can be prosecuted if they consented to the minor’s participation. Federal prosecution of juveniles for sexting, though, could be unlikely, as the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act (FJDA) generally provides that, where possible, juveniles should be prosecuted in state, rather than federal courts.

Let White Law PLLC Defend You

If you or your teenage child has been accused of a sexting-related crime in Michigan, speak to a lawyer immediately about your case. Sexting is a relatively new offense, as it has come of the increasing use of technology among teens. Michigan does consider sexting charges under its child pornography laws, though, so it is critical that you work with an experienced lawyer who can evaluate your case with respect to Michigan’s sexual abusive material laws.

Schedule a consultation with our firm at White Law PLLC to discuss your case with an attorney today.