Cormega Copening, a North Carolina resident, is currently facing felony charges of sexual exploitation of a minor. If convicted, he would have to register as a sex offender. He was charged after authorities found sexually explicit photos of a 16-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy on his phone.
That boy? Himself.
Copening, now 17, may be punished by a law originally meant to protect him. The sex offender registry is already overburdened with a large number of minors who, many say, shouldn’t be there in the first place. Unless the law changes, that list may soon include Copening, a teenager who simply shared intimate photos with his girlfriend.
Charged as an adult for exploiting a minor—himself
The Fayetteville, North Carolina, teen was 16 when he took and shared sexually explicit photos of himself with his girlfriend, Brianna Denson, also 16. She shared similar photos of herself with him. Neither Denson nor Copening disseminated the photos or shared them with outside parties.
Copening faces 5 felony charges: 2 counts of sexual exploitation in the second degree and 3 counts of sexual exploitation in the third degree. Some of those charges are for taking and possessing sexually explicit photos of himself. In other words, Copening could be labeled a sex offender for taking naked pictures of himself.
North Carolina is, along with New York, one of only two states where the age of jurisdiction is 16, which means that 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are tried as adults. This puts Copening in an unusual position because at 16—the age of consent in North Carolina—he is both young enough to be protected by minor exploitation laws and old enough to be tried as an adult. Two bills, one in the North Carolina Senate and one in the North Carolina House, attempting to raise the age from 16 to 18 have stalled.
Authorities did not have a search warrant for Copening’s phone but were given the phone to examine in connection with another case in which Copening was not a suspect. When they found the photos, they brought charges according to the law.
Denson also faced felony charges of sexual exploitation of a minor, but the felony charges against her were dropped on July 21 when she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor; the arrangement is contingent on her successfully following through on the terms of a year-long probation period. Will Copening get the same deal?
Until the law changes, don’t sext
Technology moves at a much faster pace than the law, and, unfortunately, poorly worded legislation can damage the lives of the very people it meant to protect. Hopefully, cases like Copening’s will pave the way for revisions of relevant statutes.
In the meantime, don’t take any chances. This is a question of your civil rights, after all. Taking or disseminating sexually explicit material of a minor by cellphone or computer could result in charges of child pornography or exploitation of a minor. Even receiving such material could land you on the sex offender registry if you aren’t able to convince the judge that you received it involuntarily.
Attorney Linda Chalat wrote on Avvo that for minors, sexting, taking, or sharing sexually explicit photos of oneself or other minors is a bad idea: “You could be charged with producing or distributing child pornography. If you keep the photos on your phone or computer, you could be charged with possession. If they go to someone in another state, a very easy step with internet access, it is a federal felony.”
It’s just not worth it. If you’re under 18, just don’t do it; if you have kids under 18, talk to them about this issue before it’s too late.
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