California Sexting Laws

Can you go to Jail for Sending Flirtatious Messages, Nudes, Sexually Explicit Pictures, or Images?

Yes. Under California sexting laws anyone who distributes sexually explicit images or videos may be charged under the state’s child pornography statutes or revenge porn laws.

California Sexting Laws

Quick take:

  • Sexting with a minor is a punishable offense.
  • The victim of harassment may sue the offender in a civil court.
  • Revenge porn is illegal in California.
  • If found guilty, you must register in the California’s Sex Offender Registry. 

Have you been receiving annoying or inappropriate messages? Is someone blackmailing you with pictures you shared? Or is there an adult sending inappropriate messages or pictures to a minor under your care? All these are punishable offenses in California, so you do not have to be a victim. Instead, contact law enforcement or a lawyer near you now. That said. Below is a detailed explanation of California’s sexting laws.

On the federal level, the law defines sexting as the act of using digital devices to send explicit images to another person. When two consenting adults share nudes, flirty messages, pictures, and so on, no crime is committed. However, any sharing of explicit material between an adult and a minor is a crime that warrants steep punishment. What about revenge porn and sexually suggestive messages?

Is there an adult/minor sending inappropriate messages or pictures to a minor under your care?

18 is the age of consent in California, meaning anyone below that is legally a minor. If a minor sends sexually explicit images to another minor, that person is guilty of illegal sexting. This is a crime often unraveled by parents. So, if you suspect that your child is receiving explicit material from anyone, you should act. Legal experts recommend taking the minor’s phone or other devices immediately. Possible charges against the offending minor or adult include:

  • Distribution of child pornography.
  • Enticement to create child pornography.
  • Possession of child pornography.

What if the accused minor just turned 19

Once a child turns 19, in the eyes of the law, that individual is an adult and therefore may face charges as an adult. Why?

Federal sexting laws.

18 U.S. code Statute 147 “transfer of obscene material to minors reads “whoever, using the mail or any facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, knowingly transfers obscene matter to another individual who has not attained the age of sixteen years, knowing that such other individual has not attained the age of sixteen years, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than ten years, or both.”.

Federal prosecution is unlikely in cases where both parties are minors, but an adult may face both state and federal charges depending on the nature of the case.

The penalties for federal sexting crimes

  • Sexual exploitation of children: under 18 USC 2251, anyone found guilty faces 15 to 30 years in prison.
  • Transfer of obscene materials to minors: 18 USC 1470, anyone found guilty faces 10 to 40 years in prison.
  • Coercion or enticement of minors: 18 USC 2422, anyone found guilty faces 10 years to life.
  • Materials depicting the sexual exploitation of minors: 18 USC 2252, 10 to 40 years in prison.
  • Obscene representation of children: 18 USC 1470,  10 to 40 years in prison.  

Note: adult offenders face tougher punishment than minor offenders.

California sexting laws for minors

Penal code 311 PC -California Child Pornography Laws says that it is a punishable offense to send, duplicate, transport, advertise or possess child pornography. It is up to the prosecutor to decide whether to charge the offender as a wobbler, felony, or misdemeanor.

“Wobbler” means that the prosecutor may decide to charge the offender as a felony or misdemeanor. Anyone facing child pornography misdemeanor charges in California, if found guilty, may spend up to one year in jail or pay a maximum fine of $2,500.

If the prosecutor chooses to charge as an adult, the individual faces sex offender registration and or prison.

What to remember:

  • Sixteen-year-olds charged with felony child porn may be tried as adults.
  •  The sharing of explicit content between minors is illegal in California.
  • Cases involving offenders aged twelve to seventeen -may be handled in juvenile court.
  • Once convicted of a sex crime involving a minor, the adult must register in California’s sex offender’s registry.
  • A minor charged in juvenile court is not required to register on the state’s sex offender registry.
  • Repeat offenders may face adult punishment. 
  • Sending dirty texts to a minor is illegal

Juvenile versus adult penalties

California’s juvenile system handles offenders under the age of 18, the penalties available to the courts include:

  • Detention: the court may confine the offender to a group home, detention center, home, or other confinement options.
  • Probation: just like an adult on probation, the minor will have to report to a probation officer and comply with court orders.
  • Counseling or community service: the court may order family therapy or community service for a first offense.
  • Fine: juvenile court may order a fine.
  • Warning: the judge may issue a verbal warning.

Adult offenders

Depending on the severity of the crime, the court may choose to incarcerate, fine, or put the offender on probation. The difference is, all adult offenders must register to the state’s sex offender registry.

Is sending dirty picture texts illegal under California sexting laws?

Between two consenting adults, the sending and receiving of dirty pictures and texts -is legal. In court, consent means to voluntarily agree to do something. For example, if an adult agrees to send you nudes and you have no objection, then both parties consented.

The crime here is sending unsolicited images and texts. California Penal Code 635m prohibits obscene messages, emails, or phone calls that offend, harass, or annoy the recipient. For example, texting or repeatedly calling someone who does not welcome your advances is a violation of the law. The code reads:

“(a) Every person who, with intent to annoy, telephones or makes contact by means of an electronic communication device with another and addresses to or about the other person any obscene language or addresses to the other person any threat to inflict injury to the person or property of the person addressed or any member of his or her family, is guilty of a misdemeanor. Nothing in this subdivision shall apply to telephone calls or electronic contacts made in good faith.”


“(b) Every person who, with intent to annoy or harass, makes repeated telephone calls or makes repeated contact by means of an electronic communication device, or makes any combination of calls or contact, to another person is, whether or not conversation ensues from making the telephone call or contact by means of an electronic communication device, guilty of a misdemeanor. Nothing in this subdivision shall apply to telephone calls or electronic contacts made in good faith or during the ordinary course and scope of business”

What constitutes harassment by phone in California?

  • Obscene language or threats.
  • Repeated calls or messages.
  • Unsolicited Sexually explicit images.
  • Photos taken and sent directly from a smartphone or other device.
  • Hiding one’s identity during a phone call.

It is also worth mentioning that the victim may also break the law if you use threatening or obscene language. For example, if someone leaves a prank message on your device and you call back and make serious threats of bodily or property damage, that qualifies as an annoying message.

How many calls a day is considered harassment in California?

Harassment refers to any unwanted behavior directed at you or someone else. Consequently, a single phone call may qualify as harassment. The questions the court will ask include:

  • What relationship do you have with the abuser?
  • What is the age of the victim?
  • Is it harassment or abuse?

Courts recognize four types of harassment including, domestic violence, elder or dependent abuse, civil harassment, and workplace violence. Civil harassment happens when someone you have not dated, or are not related to, threatens, stalks, sexually assaults or sends you explicit messages or nude photos. You may sue that person in civil court for causing emotional distress, or other damage, or if arrested, the offender may face harassment charges.

In California, there are two levels of harassment, civil harassment, and criminal harassment

California penal code 422 describes criminal harassment as “making threats to commit a crime which will result in great bodily injury or death.” Also, California defines stalking as the willful, malicious, and repeated following, threats, and harassing another with the intent of placing the victim and his/her family, in reasonable fear for their safety.

Both charges may result in jail or fines.

How do you prove harassment in California?

The victim will have to prove three elements beyond a reasonable doubt, that is, One. that you receive harassing text or phone calls from the offender. Two. The message received was obscene in nature, was made repeatedly, or contained threats. Three. The offender made the calls or sent the texts with the intention of harassing or annoying the victim.

California sexting laws punishment

Any violation of California penal code 653m via phone call, text, email, faxes, photos, or videos may be treated as a misdemeanor or felony. Misdemeanor harassment in California is punishable by up to six months in county jail, and a maximum fine of $1000.

When does phone harassment become a felony?

If the offender threatens death, great bodily injury, or causes the victim to fear for their safety. Then the offender may face felony charges. The punishment for felony harassment in California’s a maximum fine of $10,000, a maximum of three years in state prison, or both.

California revenge porn law

California Penal Code Section 647 (j) (4), reads, quote:

Any person who intentionally distributes the image of the intimate body part or body parts of another identifiable person, or an image of the person depicted engaged in an act of sexual intercourse, sodomy, oral copulation, sexual penetration, or an image of masturbation by the person depicted or in which the person depicted participates, under circumstances in which the persons agree or understand that the image shall remain private, the person distributing the image knows or should know that distribution of the image will cause serious emotional distress, and the person depicted suffers that distress”

What that means is if you post nude images or videos of someone online without consent, then you are guilty of Disorderly Conduct.

What to remember:

  • Posting nudes of anyone without consent is a punishable offense in California.
  • Anyone who posts nudes without consent may be charged under California Revenge Porn law.
  • Disorder conduct is a misdemeanor in California.
  • Posting nude images of a minor is a felony.

Overall, California sexting laws say that sharing nudes and explicit messages is only okay if both parties are consenting adults.

Whether you are defending yourself against charges, or the victim, we recommend contacting a lawyer near you.