Wonderful, Rational, and Above All Else, Fair. Our Justice System.

Seeing how I come from the county that handed down a totally reasonable 104 1/2 to 216 year prison sentence (not a typo, and not the only insane sentence for drug distribution to come out of Blair County courts) for non-violent drug offenses while imposing an excessively harsh, borderline unconstitutional sentence of 3 to 23 months in jail, followed by 5 years of probation for the indecent assault of a five year old girl, I figured there was nothing the US justice system could do that would surprise me.  Wow, how wrong I was.

And so it was that in February, the two teenagers were arrested for sexually exploiting … themselves.

Wait, what now?

The strange story began last year when the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office was investigating accusations of a statutory rape involving students at Douglas Byrd High School in Fayetteville, N.C., according to the Fayette Observer.

As part of a broad investigation, Sheriff’s deputies examined the cellphone of Cormega Copening, a star football player who was then 16 years old.

The deputies didn’t find any evidence relating to the alleged statutory rape. What they did find, however, were consensually taken nude photos of Copening and his girlfriend, Brianna Denson, also 16 at the time.

(The Post is using the teenagers’ names because they have been charged as adults. They did not return requests for comment.)

Just as a quick aside.  How “broad” was their investigation into this statutory rape to justify them seizing this kid’s cellphone?  And then they charge him with a crime over pictures they found on his phone unrelated to the case they were investigating?  That may be legal, but you will never convince me that it is ethical.  Moving on….

In almost any other state, such consensually taken photos would be completely legal or, at worst, a misdemeanor. But in North Carolina, Copening and Denson came up against a counterintuitive confluence of laws.

“In North Carolina you are considered an adult at 16 years old as far as being charged,” Swain said. “But to disseminate and receive sexually explicit texts, photos or videos, you must be over 18.”

And so it was that in February, the two teenagers were arrested for sexually exploiting … themselves.

North Carolina to the teens: “Sex?  Sexting?  Don’t you kids know you could ruin your lives doing this stuff?  Here, let us ruin your lives to show you.”

Charging documents listed Copening as both the culprit (as an adult) and the victim (as a minor), simply for snapping a nude photo of himself in the mirror and sending it to his girlfriend.

“Copening’s age traps him in a sort of sexting legal netherworld,” wrote North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. “He’s accused of exploiting a minor (himself), but because North Carolina is one of just two states that automatically tries 16-year-olds as adults, he’s being tried as an adult.”

So as we try to wrap our minds around the idea of sexually exploiting yourself, at least we can take solace in the knowledge that as ridiculous as these charges are, at least they aren’t serious.

All told, prosecutors charged Copening with five felony counts of sexually exploiting a minor: two for taking nude selfies, two more for sending them to his girlfriend, and one for possessing an explicit photo of Denson on his phone. Denson, meanwhile, was charged with two felony counts of sexual exploitation of a minor: one for taking a nude selfie and another for sending it to Copening.

The felony charges meant that Copening faced up to 10 years in prison, if convicted; Denson faced up to four. They also could have been labeled sex offenders for life.

Jesus fucking Christ on a pogo stick.  Hasn’t this prosecutors office ever heard of judgement calls?  Why the hell did they even file these charges?  Are they black or something?  (Yep.)

While the existence of the internet resulted in the accused couples prom(?) pictures to be plastered on newspapers across the world, it also made damn sure that this case wouldn’t be yet another example of prosecutorial misconduct heard of by no one except those involved.  Thankfully, in this case the outcry may be loud enough to change future applications of the law.

The case quickly drew intense criticism, both in Fayetteville community and around the globe.

“We’ve got too much big crime in this community to put this kind of effort into wrecking two kids’ lives,” wrote the Fayetteville Observer’s editorial board, recommending the statutes be amended. “This should never happen again to anyone.”

Legal scholars lined up to pick apart the prosecution’s case. Many focused on the sheer absurdity of the situation.

“It’s dysfunctional to be charged with possession of your own image,” Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin and cyberbullying expert, told the Guardian. “I don’t think it should be a criminal offense where there is no victim.”

“You’re talking about millions of kids being charged with child pornography” if the law were applied nationwide, psychologist Jeff Temple of the University of Texas Medical Branch told the Fayette Observer.

Others delivered even starker assessments.

“It’s ludicrous,” Fred Lane, a computer security and privacy expert, told the Guardian. “It’s crazy. It’s an overreach.” He explained that such laws stem from the 1983 Supreme Court decision upholding a ban on child porn, but that many state laws were woefully outdated in our current era of cellphones and texting.

Sgt. Sean Swain is not impressed with the outcry.  In what is sure to earn a nomination for “Most Ludicrous Comment by Law Enforcement Personnel, 2015,” Sgt. Swain insists that he is saving these poor, misguided kids by arresting them for multiple felonies.  Seriously.  (Bolding, as always, is mine.)

“This technology and this problem that we’re having with this case, we don’t know where it’s going to go in five years when they apply for college,” Swain said. “We don’t know where these pictures are going to go. We’re more or less saving the kids from themselves because they’re not seeing what’s going to come down the road.”

Oh, fuck off.  Or for a less vulgar response, here is U. of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks:

“This [case] demonstrates an utter failure to understand the nature of sexual exploitation,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “Consensual sexual activity among peers should not be a crime; we should not allow our social hysteria over teen sexual activity to justify prosecutions that will destroy teenagers’ lives ‘for their own good.’

….

“Sexual activity that does not even involve another person — such as taking a sexually explicit photo of yourself — should not ever be a crime. In fact, criminalizing such expression likely violates the First Amendment,” she said. “Child sexual exploitation laws were clearly designed to address the exploitation of children by adults, not teenagers exploring their sexuality on their own or with a willing peer.”

Officials would be better off focusing on numerous instances of people maliciously sharing explicit photos or videos against the wishes of those depicted, so called “revenge porn,” she said.

“Non-consensual sexual activity, on the other hand, including the creation or distribution of private sexual images, is wrong and should be a crime. This should be the focus of law enforcement, yet North Carolina does not yet even have a law prohibiting this conduct,” Franks said.

What makes me even more sick over this case?  Rather than risk their futures in a legal fight, they both signed plea deals.

….

both teens have taken plea agreements in order to avoid trial. In July, Denson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “disseminating harmful material to minors.” If she stays out of trouble for the next year, her record will be wiped clean and she will avoid the label of sex offender.

Copening followed suit earlier this month, pleading guilty on Sept. 4 to two similar misdemeanor counts in exchange for the same deal.

Now let’s watch the authorities responsible justify their actions.

“The legislature makes the law; I enforce it,” Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West told the Fayette Observer. “The legislature has obviously criminalized the conduct, arguably at a more serious level than we resolved the case at.”

Similarly, Sheriff Moose Butler told the newspaper that he didn’t necessarily agree with the felony charges but that it was his duty to enforce the law as it’s written.

While the actual author of the law just rolls his eyes.

But the man who wrote the law back in 1990 said he never intended for it to be used against kids in a consensual relationship.

“That would seem to me not the thing that most prosecutors are elected to do,” said North Carolina state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of West’s decision to prosecute the two teens.

Seriously, that justification from DA West is laughable.  He’s telling us that he has never made a judgement call while in office?  Bullshit.  By his logic, why does it even matter who the DA even is if all they do is mindlessly follow a set of guidelines handed down by the legislature?

 

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