Governor Rick Perry signed several bills into law that will impact the San Antonio area and surrounding communities, Bexar county, and Texas. The regular 82nd legislative session ended on May 30, 2011, and the following Senate Bill took effect on September 1, 2011. The following summary of the law concerns the Penal Code, the Family Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Family Code, and the Education Code. This new law, and all Texas laws, can be located at the Texas Constitution and Statutes website. As with all new laws, the changes made apply only to offenses committed on or after the effective date.
SB 407, Relating to the creation of the offense of electronic transmission of certain visual material depicting a minor and to certain educational programs concerning the prevention and awareness of that offense. Penal Code Sections 37.09 and 43.26 amended, and Section 43.261 added. Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 6 and Articles 38.45, 39.15, 42.12, 45.0215 and 45.0216 amended, and Articles 6.09 and 45.061 added. Family Code Sections 51.03, 51.08, 51.13, 58.003, 59.004, and 61.002 amended, and Section 54.0404 added. Education Code Section 37.218 added.
Previously, minors who were convicted of “sexting” (sending sexually explicit material via electronic means) would be tried as adults under pornography laws. The term “sexting” has recently made it into the Oxford Dictionary. The consequences for the minor could have been a possible felony conviction and registration as sexual offenders, which would have resulted in a lifetime of negative stigmatisms. Under the new law, the punishments more accurately fit the crimes and take into account a defendant’s impressionable age and whether it is their first conviction.
The new law uses a tiered system and minors are to be charged with misdemeanors. Individuals who are 17 years of age and younger can be tried for both the promotion and the possession of sexting material. Minors facing their first conviction of sexting will be charged with a Class C misdemeanor (maximum fine of $500). A second offense is a Class B misdemeanor (up to 180 days in jail and maximum fine of $2000) and a third offense is a Class A misdemeanor (up to one year in jail and maximum fine of $4000).
There are several requirements associated with the new law. County court judges are required to take a minor’s plea in an open court. Parent(s) of the minor are required to be in attendance in the court. All records are to be expunged on the 17th birthday of the minor if they have been convicted of only one sexting offense. For cases punishable by fines only, the case will be transferred to juvenile court. If the defendant is convicted and required to complete an educational program, the defendant and/or the parents are held financially responsible for any costs. The courts are allowed to seal the records of minors who attend and complete an educational program.
In addition, the new law requires the Texas School Safety Center, in cooperation with the Office of the Attorney General, develop the program for the psychological, social and legal consequences to be used by Texas school districts to educate students. The program must be written by January 1, 2012, and updated each year. The program will be available beginning the 2012-2013 school year. Each school district will decide what grade level is appropriate for introduction.