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Tennessee Sexting Laws

Refreshed in 2019, § 37-1-1-148 “illegal use of a telecommunication device by a minor.” is the Tennessee sexting law. Under the statute, it is unlawful for teens to possess or disseminate explicit content.

Quick take:

  • Tennessee Sexting Laws do not prevent prosecutors from pursuing exploitation of a minor, child pornography, or other charges.
  • Anyone above 18 is considered an adult which means that the
  • Tennessee has a Romeo and Juliet clause which allows for relations between minors, but does not account for sexting
  • Teens between 18 and 19 are most at risk of facing the much more secere child pornography charges

Summary of Sexting Laws in Tennessee

For teens, it is vital to remember that Tennessee sexting laws do not prevent prosecutors from pursuing Exploitation of a Minor, Child Pornography, and other charges if the facts presented warrant the charges. Instead, the law aims to shield teens accused of minor or petty offenses from sex offender registration and incarceration for sex-related felonies. It is also worth noting that, under state law, anyone above 18 is effectively an adult, meaning the state’s sexting statute does not apply to you.

The Tennessee Sexting Law explicitly forbids minors from both sending (transmit, distribute, publish, disseminate) or possessing any sexually explicit content containing a minor.

The law is not violated if the minor receiving images did not solicit the image. In addition, the receiver must also delete the photo/video OR report the photo/video to the sending minor’s parent/guardian/school/or law enforcement.

One thing to remember is that while these laws are severe and can have real consequences for minors who are sexting, they are put in place to protect youth from the much harsher child pornography laws that existed previously.

Consequently, teens between 18 and 19 are at most risk of facing child pornography charges, exploitation of a minor, soliciting sex from a minor, luring a minor, and revenge porn. The majority of said charges are felonies, and a single set of facts may lead to multiple charges.

What about Tennessee’s Romeo and Juliet law?

Tennessee’s Romeo and Juliet clause allows relations between minors aged 13-14 and minors not 4 years older than themselves. Teenagers aged 15-17 have one additional year of lee-way and can have relations with youths not more than 5 years older than themselves. What this law does not allow is the creation and possession of explicit material/child pornography. Under both state and federal laws, minors do not have the legal authority to consent to be the subject of sexually explicit material.

Tennessee sexting laws and illegal use of a telecommunication device

Under § 37-1-148, a child or a teenager violates the statute if the individual intentionally or knowingly uses telecommunication or electronic device to disseminate, publish, post, or in any way make available sexually explicit images of a minor/ could be self, or someone else.

The statute provides two affirmative defenses:

  • The accused reported the material to law enforcement, legal guardian, school, or to someone with authority over the sender.
  • The minor deleted the photograph or other material without displaying or disseminating it to someone outside the relationship.

If tried under this statute, the court may declare the child an unruly child.

What is an unruly child disposition?

Under 37-1-132, “unruly Child Disposition.” The court has the authority to remove the child from the custody of parents, guardians, or legal custodian; the court may decide to commit the Department of Children Services if the juvenile family crisis intervention Program recommends it.

Punishment-wise, the court has multiple options including, secure and non-secure custody, probation, community service, supervision, educational program, or other rehabilitative measures that apply.

When does sexting turn into child pornography in Tennessee?

Under TSA 39-17-1003, “offense of sexual exploitation of a minor.” It is unlawful to possess any material that includes a minor (1) engaged in sexual conduct. (2) simulated patently offensive sexual conduct. Section C of the statute, the prosecution may consider all relevant evidence including, internet history, the personal development of the depicted teen, expert testimony, computer forensic, and so on.

What is crucial to remember is section B of the statute that states each video, photo, image drawing, video cassette, or other media may be charged as a separate count. If the number is above fifty, the accused under a single count will escalate a class D felony for each image into a class B felony.

Also, the prosecution does not have to prove the age or identity of the person depicted.

Aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor

Under § 39-17-1005, “Aggravated Sexual Exploitation of a Minor” it is unlawful to in any way promote, employ, assist, use, or permit a minor to participate in any performance or production of sexually explicit media. Sexual conduct refers to acts including the lewd exhibition of the breasts/genital/buttocks, sodomy, intercourse, defecation, and other sexual acts.

Consequently, nude selfies constitute child pornography.

Any adult who in any way assists or encourages a child to create sexually explicit images or video may face trial under this statute.

Violation of the statute according to section D is a class B felony.

§ 39-17-1005 What to remember:

  • § 40-35-115 allows consecutive sentencing for violation of the statute.
  • Upon conviction, the accused must register as a sex offender.
  • It is a federal offense to solicit sexual conduct or media from a child across state or international borders.
  • Possession and dissemination of child pornography in the state is a class D or B felony depending on the nature of the content and number of pictures or videos.

Juvenile or adult court?

Tennessee code section 37-1-134 states that teens above sixteen may be transferred to adult court for committing any criminal offense. Child pornography creation, possession, and dissemination are all felony criminal offenses. Meaning prosecutors may pursue a trial in adult court.

If a teen commits a federal crime, federal prosecutors may recommend trial in adult court.

Sexting in Tennessee is legally an Unruly Act, meaning the teens may face trial in the juvenile system. However, according to the Tennessee juvenile corrections, their goal is to rehabilitate, not punish. Consequently, the teen may not have to register as a sex offender.

Also, if the teen completes their sentence, the individual may petition the court for expungement after turning 18.

What to remember:

  • Teens adjudicated in the juvenile system do not have to register as sex offenders.
  • Anyone convicted under the state’s Child Exploitation, Solicitation, or other sex-related statutes must register as a sex offender.

Tennessee sexting laws and exploitation of a minor by an electronic device

Under section § 39-13-529, “offense of soliciting sexual exploitation of a minor.” It is unlawful for anyone above 18 to solicit sexual conduct from a child in person, via an electronic device, or through writing. Note that the law also applies to webcam activity and simulated acts.

It is also worth noting that soliciting a minor for sex or sexual conduct is both a state and a federal offense.

Section § 39-13-529: what to remember:

  • Displaying or exposing a minor to harmful material is a violation of the statute.
  • The statute allows law enforcement officers to pose as minors during investigations.
  • If the victim is below 13, the accused qualifies for enhanced punishment.
  • It is unlawful to command, hire, induce, or in any way to cause a teen to violate the statute.
  • Any violation of the statute is a class B, C, or class E felo0ny depending on the facts presented.
  • Victim/ a minor’s consent is not a defense.

Tennessee sexting laws and non-consensual sexting

§ 39-17-308 “harassment,” reads, quote:

A person is guilty of harassment if the person “Communicates with another person or transmits or displays an image without legitimate purpose with the intent that the image is viewed by the victim by any method.”

The statute works under the assumption that the accused intended to annoy, threaten, or harm the victim in any way. Thus, under the statute, it is also unlawful to hide one’s identity during a phone call, repeatedly threaten the victim (stalking).

What if the accused is a teen?

Adults accused of making harassing phone calls may face class E felony charges or class A misdemeanor charges. If the accused is a teen, section D of the statute states that quote:

“A violation by a minor of subdivision (a)(4) is a delinquent act and shall be punishable only by up to thirty (30) hours of community service, without compensation, for charitable or governmental agencies as determined by the court.

What to remember

  • The statute applies to social media communication and apps such as WhatsApp.
  • Victims may take civil action.

Tennessee sexting laws and sale, loan, or exhibition of material to minors

Under § 39-17-911, it is unlawful for anyone to disseminate or make harmful material available to a minor knowingly. “Harmful material” refers to any drawing, picture, video game, computer file, or any other visual depiction that displays excess violence, sexual conduct, or sadomasochistic abuse.

Consequently, an adult sending nudes or pornography to a minor is a violation of this statute,

Section D of the statute provides one affirmative defense -that is- the minor viewed the photo, video, or image while accompanied by a legal guardian, or the minor had written permission of the parent or guardian to view the item.

 Violating the statute is a class A misdemeanor -punishable by up to eleven months in jail and a $2500 fine.

Other Tennessee Laws

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