Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper delivered a tough message about cell phones and computers to about 40 students and parents gathered in Harrison High's cafeteria Wednesday night:
If you're caught with nude, semi-nude or explicit photos of someone younger than 18 on your phone or computer, expect to go to jail.
Cooper and Assistant Prosecutor Julie McMurtry, who heads up the juvenile division, spoke for more than an hour about the permanence and dangers of electronic communication, especially for teens.
"There is nothing, nothing, nothing that is temporary ... There is a record forever," she said. "Even if you think you're texting in private, all of those things can be brought back up."
Cooper reminded students that their phones and computers don't belong to them – even if they were received as a gift or purchased with the student's own money.
"It belongs to your parents ... because somebody pays for the contract, and until you are 18 years of age, you can't sign a contract," she said. Parents can look through their child's cell phone or computer at any time, Cooper added, and should be sure to teach "the rules of the road" before giving children cell phones and computers.
While she did not intend to scare students, Cooper said, she wanted them to be informed, so she would not get to know them in a professional capacity. She talked about the laws governing cell phones, which punish those who create, possess and distribute illicit photos of anyone younger than 18.
Students who receive that kind of material should bring it to a counselor or police officer, Cooper said. Realizing students are not likely to turn in a friend, she urged them to immediately delete those kinds of messages. While a "ghost" of the image or text may remain, there will also be a record of when it was deleted.
Cooper stressed that a message is no longer considered private once the "send" button is hit. While students might think they are sending a photo or message only to a friend, friendships can end – and it's very easy now to retaliate by broadcasting what was supposed to be a "private" message.
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Cooper said a young Oakland County woman whose boyfriend had broken off their relationship had her private messages made very public. Because she wanted him back, she agreed to send him inappropriate pictures and video of herself – which he, in turn, shared with all the boys at a sports camp he was attending, and every girl in their school, Cooper said.
"We had to confiscate 200 phones. The young girl had to move to a different school ... We have no idea how many people all over the state, all over the world, have that picture," she said.
Cooper also related the stories of two young women in other states were harassed and bullied after their pictures were widely circulated. Both thought they were sending pictures to someone who would keep them private. Both killed themselves.
"Somebody gets mad, they send pictures to the football team, the basketball team ... grandparents, a minister," she said. "That's how mean, that's how vicious it can be."
Noting a bit of laughter in the back of the room, she added, "You may think its funny, but if it's your picture, it's not so funny."
Up to 20 years for taking a picture
No one was laughing as Cooper talked about the consequences of creating, possessing or passing on nude, semi-nude or explicit photos of a minor. Conviction on a charge of creating or soliciting the material, a felony, means a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Worse yet, she added, the offender is placed on the state's sex offender registry, which keeps him or her from living or working within 1,000 feet of a school and must be disclosed whenever applying for any kind of license.
That the receiver of an inappropriate message can be prosecuted came as a surprise to Farmington Hills resident Linda Clew, who brought her 15-year-old son Chris to the event.
"I guess I thought people who received it were more the innocent party," she said, adding she didn't realize the legal system was so unforgiving.
Chris Clew was also struck by the consequences. He hadn't really wanted to come to the event, but said he was glad he did. He didn't know "that you can go to jail for 20 years for just taking a picture."
"I know it's dangerous," he said, "but it seems like a long time." Chris Clew said he knows inappropriate photos are shared at Harrison; he saw it being done in one of his classes last year. He has never gotten involved with sexting and said, "Now I'm going to be extremely cautious about it."
Because students may also become victims, Cooper advised students to also be very careful about what information they expose in their social media profiles. The reason Michigan's laws about electronic communication are so tough, she said, is that predators troll the Internet looking for victims.
Over the past two years, Cooper said, MySpace has deleted more than 90,000 accounts held by registered sex offenders; Facebook has deleted 5,585. Sex offenders may pose as a teen, and may even be recommended by Facebook as the friend of a friend, or someone who shares a particular interest.
"They are constantly combing those pages," Cooper said. "They want your picture to collect and trade ... I'm telling you this because you need to live your life with caution. Not fear. Caution."