Civil Liberties

Prosecutor, Legislator Blame Each Other for Derailing Teen's Future Over Sexting Charge

Teen loses cell phone privileges, constitutional rights.



Cormega Copening, the North Carolina 17-year-old charged with sexual exploitation for keeping pictures of himself on his cell phone accepted a plea deal to avoid jail time and registration on the sex offender registry.

Copening and his girlfriend, Brianna Denson, found themselves caught in a nefarious legal paradox as a result of the sexually provocative texts they exchanged when they were both 16. North Carolina law holds that anyone 16 or older can consent to sex and be charged as an adult for criminal sentencing purposes; perversely, it also considers everyone under the age of 18 to be minors for sexual exploitation purposes. This means that Copening and Denson were legally allowed to have sex, but not to keep nude pictures of themselves on their own phones—and can be sentenced as adults for exploiting minors, even though they are the minors who were exploited, according to the law.

Copening cut a deal with prosecutors obligating him to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of disseminating harmful materials to minors while avoiding the felony charges. (Denson worked out a similar arrangement.)

That's fairly good news for the teen—he avoids the worst possible consequences of his mildly inappropriate actions.

Still, Copening will be on probation for a year, under terms that are disruptive to the life of a young person, according to the Fayetteville Observer's Paul Woolverton:

District Court Judge April Smith sentenced Copening to a year of probation. During that year, her order says, Copening must stay in school, take a class on making good decisions, complete 30 hours of community service, not use or possess alcohol or illegal drugs, not possess a cellphone and must submit to warrantless searches.

The order to stay in school is acceptable; the loss of cell phone privileges and surrendering of constitutional rights is not. Again, is the state not, in some sense, punishing the victim of a sex crime—if having naked pictures of oneself is indeed a crime?

As for taking a class on making good decisions, perhaps the cops and prosecutors can sign up, too. None want to admit responsibility for this violation of common sense and bodily autonomy, according to Woolverton:

On Tuesday, Cumberland County Sheriff Moose Butler said he didn't necessarily agree with the use of felony charges against these two teens, but his deputies have to enforce the law as it's written.

District Attorney Billy West has the authority to reduce or dismiss criminal charges. He said Friday that his office made the right decisions in this case. His assistant reduced the charges to misdemeanors in plea bargains with the two teens. The arrangement holds the teens responsible and punishes them for their acts, but should ultimately leave them with no convictions on their records.

"The legislature has obviously criminalized the conduct, arguably at a more serious level than we resolved the case at," West said Friday. "Seemingly it would be that they did not think it was good public policy for these young people to be exchanging these sort of photographs with their phone."

West wouldn't debate the policy. "The legislature makes the law; I enforce it," he said.

The legislators who approved the law claim told Woolverton it shouldn't have been applied in such a manner and chided the prosecutor for not exercising better discretion:

 "I would think normally as a matter of prosecutorial discretion you would not charge a minor with sending a minor — having her own picture or sending to another minor — (that) would seem to me not the thing that most prosecutors are elected to do," said state Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam of Wake County, who also is a lawyer.

Stam's legislation in 1990 created the felony offense of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor. It was intended to crack down on people who sexually abuse and sexually exploit children, he said.

Nonetheless, teens shouldn't get carte blanche to make sexually explicit photos of themselves, Stam said.

"This is not a good use of the prosecutor's time, or discretion, but you can't make it so that it's totally legal for 16- and 17-year-olds to do this because then the criminal gangs that are primarily involved in trafficking would just use 16- and 17-year-olds as their disseminators or as part of their operation," Stam said.

I have absolutely no idea what Stam is talking about here—Criminal gangs of child pornographers using teens to create and disseminate their material? What?—and I'm not about to Google the relevant key words. But this does not seem like a danger that actually exists. On the other hand, there is a gang of government actors who turned a harmless teen into both a victim, and a perpetrator, of sexual exploitation. Because of their actions, his name and picture are forever associated with sex crimes.

Thankfully, at least the damage to his school year seems to have been minimized. While his high school was initially obligated to suspend him as quarterback of the football team, he was allowed back on the field last weekend.