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Child Pornography Laws

Federal and state laws make it a crime to produce, distribute, or even just possess pornographic materials that portray a minor (someone under the age of 18). Increasingly, child pornography laws are being relied on to punish individuals who use the internet to share or obtain pornographic images and videos involving children.

This article provides a brief overview of child pornography laws in the United States.

Federal Child Pornography Laws

Federal laws addressing child pornography are:

  • 18 U.S.C. § 2251 -- Sexual exploitation of children
  • 18 U.S.C. § 2251A — Selling or buying of children
  • 18 U.S.C. § 2252 — Certain activities relating to material involving the sexual exploitation of minors
  • 18 U.S.C. § 2252A — Certain activities relating to material constituting or containing child pornography
  • 18 U.S.C. § 2260 — Production of sexually explicit depictions of a minor for importation into the United States

A violation of federal child pornography laws is a serious crime and the penalties are harsh. First-time offenders found guilty of producing child pornography are sentenced to between 15 and 30 years in prison. If offenders have prior convictions, offenders can be sentenced from a minimum of 35 years to life in prison. Individuals caught with child pornography on their personal computers receive prison time. Offenders may be prosecuted under federal law, state law, or both.

State vs. Federal Child Pornography Laws

A federal child pornography crime such as manufacturing, distribution, or possession typically requires the illegal activity to cross state lines, such as on the internet or through the mail. While federal authorities often take the lead, state prosecutors can also pursue child pornography charges.

Mandatory Sex Registration

If you've been convicted of a child pornography-related crime, either federal or state, your sentence will likely include mandatory sex offender registration. This means that your photo, address, and other information will appear in a database for monitoring and tracking sex offenders.

It is both a federal and state crime to knowingly fail to register or update a sex offender listing as required by law. Members of the public can gain access to this information via the National Sex Offender Public Website, which includes the registry of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Child Pornography Laws and the First Amendment

Some people have argued, unsuccessfully, that child pornography should be protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, courts have consistently found that images of child pornography are not protected as free speech or free expression, primarily because the very existence of such material infers that violations -- photographing minors in a pornographic manner -- were committed in its production.

The main precedent for this was set in a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision (New York v. Ferber) upholding the right of states to prohibit the distribution or possession of sexually explicit photos involving children. Specifically, it holds that these state laws "...[don't] violate the First Amendment as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment."

Selfies and Social Media

When explicit images of minors are shared on social media (including "selfies" taken by the subjects themselves), this oversharing may cross the line into child pornography territory. While the criminal nature of such acts is clear when committed by an adult, it's less certain when it's committed by a minor. It also depends on particular state laws.

The intent behind child pornography laws is to protect children from exploitation, but many laws don't make a distinction. For instance, a minor sending an explicit photo of himself to his minor girlfriend could open both individuals up to prosecution. However, this is a still-evolving area of law, in the wake of rapid advances in technology.

What Should I Do if I Discover a Suspected Child Pornography Website?

If you come across a website that you believe is depicting child pornography, the first step is to contact your local law enforcement agency. While many of these crimes involve federal law, local authorities will know where to route the investigation. You can also contact:

Talk to a Criminal Defense Attorney About Your Criminal Charges

Whether prosecuted under federal or state law, violating child pornography laws often leads to heavy prison sentences. If you've been accused of child pornography, don't waste any time before retaining an experienced attorney to protect your legal rights, help you establish a defense, and preserve evidence that may benefit your case.

Contact a criminal defense lawyer near you today.

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