After a 16-year-old Fayetteville girl made a sexually explicit nude photo of herself for her boyfriend last fall, the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office concluded that she committed two felony sex crimes against herself and arrested her in February.
The girl was listed on a warrant as both the adult perpetrator and the minor victim of two counts of sexual exploitation of minor - second-degree exploitation for making her photo and third-degree exploitation for having her photo in her possession.
A conviction could have put the girl in prison and would have required her to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life. A plea bargain arranged for her in July should clear her record next summer.
With the growing popularity of sexting among teens, two researchers said the courts would fill with defendants like this girl if the Sheriff's Office were to arrest all the teens who make nude photos to share with their love interests.
Were such a standard to apply nationwide, "you're talking about millions of kids being charged with child pornography," said psychologist Jeff Temple of the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Temple said his research has found that 28 percent of teens use their cellphones to send naked photos of themselves to other teens. So does a 2014 study published by researchers at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.
The Fayetteville girl, Brianna Denson, was sexting with her boyfriend, Cormega Zyon Copening, the Sheriff's Office said. The agency hit Copening with five sexual exploitation of a minor charges - four for making and possessing two sexually explicit pictures of himself and the last for possessing a copy of the picture that Denson made for him.
Copening, who was 16 at the time and is now 17, also faces possible prison time and the requirement to register as a sex offender if convicted. The charges have already forced him off the football team at Jack Britt High School. He had been the quarterback.
"That's crazy. That seems like overkill," psychologist Michelle Drouin of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne said when she learned the potential criminal consequences for Denson and Copening. Drouin also has studied sexting among young people.
"It's becoming a way that people are initiating sexual contact with one another," Drouin said. She described it as their equivalent of "second base" in the old baseball metaphor for sexual activity.
"One thing I definitely would say is that sexting has become so intertwined with budding sexuality that I think these are exactly the people who are going to be sending these pictures," she said.
Although the pictures are illegal, sexual intercourse between 16-year-old teens is not. The age of consent for sexual activity in North Carolina is 16, and it dips younger than that for teens who are less than four years apart in age.
In interviews on Tuesday, Sheriff's Office lawyer Ronnie Mitchell and Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West wouldn't say whether they think it's good public policy to use this law to arrest and prosecute consensually sexting teens. They say it's their agencies' job to enforce the law as written.
The Sheriff's Office investigates sexting incidents several times a month, Mitchell estimated. "More frequently than we would like," he said.
The investigations usually are into instances in which photos are shared among a group instead of just within a couple, he said. To his knowledge, Denson's and Copening's pictures weren't shared with anyone else. He said they were discovered during an investigation of other explicit photos that were being shared among teens without the consent of the person or persons pictured.
West would not comment on the specifics of the Denson and Copening cases. However, he said, in cases where the defendants and victims were willing participants and close in age, his office typically lets them plead guilty to a misdemeanor with a deferred prosecution.
This is how Denson is settling her case.
In court on July 21, Denson told District Court Judge Stephen Stokes that she was responsible for the crime of disseminating harmful material to minors. This is a misdemeanor and does not have the life-ruining requirement that she register as a sex offender.
One of West's assistants dropped the felony sexual exploitation charges.
Stokes put Denson on probation for a year. He ordered her to pay $200 in court costs, stay in school, take a class on how to make good decisions, refrain from using illegal drugs or alcohol, not possess a cellular phone for the duration of her probation and to do 30 hours of community service.
If Denson stays out of trouble, West's office next July will drop the misdemeanor charge. She will be able to move on with her life with a clean criminal record.
She shouldn't have been charged in the first place, researchers Temple and Drouin said.
"It seems to me that you might be among the strictest of the laws that I've heard of" in the country, Droiun said.
Copening's case is still pending.
The Drexel University study in 2014 said 20 states and the U.S. territory of Guam have eased their laws in recent years to account for the sexting activities of teens.
Young people have been sharing naked pictures of themselves for centuries, Temple said. Before the invention of the camera, he said, they drew or painted pictures of themselves in their love letters.
The difference now is that the images spread so quickly and easily with modern technology, Temple said.
Instead of punishing young people, Temple said, "our resources should be more on education and not on punishment with this type of sexting. ... More education with respect to actual sexual behavior, and more importantly - I can't say this enough - is more information on healthy relationships and what healthy relationships look like with adolescents."