Federal Prosecutors Say Cases of ‘Sextortion’ of People in Nude Pictures Increasing

August 23, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

As a West Palm Beach cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I have been interested to see all the media coverage given recently to “sextortion.” As this Associated Press article from Aug. 14 notes, sextortion is the practice of using explicit or naked pictures of someone to force favors out of that person, often favors of a sexual nature. Frequently, the article says, the pictures were not intended for the perpetrator, but ended up in that person’s hands as they got passed around between acquaintances or online. The article says federal prosecutors believe the practice is on the rise, although it did not cite specific numbers. It did cite several specific cases, including a particularly large case I wrote about for this blog back in June.

All of the cases in the article involve young men extorting other young people, often but not always young women. The victims may be classmates at school, but they may also be random people found through the Internet. In a case out of Maryland, the article says, a 17-year-old and two friends used a webcam to flash their breasts at an Internet chat room. A few weeks later, the victim began receiving threatening emails from 19-year-old Trevor Shea of Mechanicsville, Maryland, who said he would post the pictures to her MySpace page unless she sent more explicit pictures. She complied at least twice before authorities got involved and arrested Shea. In another case, 18-year-old Anthony Stancl of Wisconsin posed online as a girl in order to get male classmates to send him naked photos. He then revealed that he was male and used the photos to extort the classmates for sex.

The Today Show ran a brief segment on the topic Oct. 16:

As an Orlando cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, I was particularly struck by a statement made by the attorney in that segment. She said the threat of being prosecuted for child pornography -- and becoming a registered sex offender for life -- could drive some victims to hide rather than seek help. This is not an idle concern. I have written here several times about the trend toward prosecuting teenagers for making “child pornography” by taking pictures of themselves. I believe these prosecutions are exactly backwards -- subjecting teenagers to harsh penalties despite the lack of any real victim. Those penalties are designed for serious adult criminals, not for kids experimenting with their sexuality. If the threat of prosecution also discourages kids from seeking help when they do become victims themselves, that’s all the more reason to take a different, more sensible approach to the problem.

Of course, there’s also the issue of how to charge the “sextortionists” themselves. In the Maryland case, the article says, Shea was indicted for sexual exploitation -- presumably 18 USC sec. 2251, which (in relevant part) prohibits making child pornography. That crime has a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of 20 for each count. If Shea faces multiple charges, he could easily grow old in prison. While his actions were certainly illegal and deserving of penalties, I am not sure this statute is appropriate. After all, it’s designed for hardened adult child pornographers who exploit small children -- not a 19-year-old demanding pictures from a girl two years younger.

As a Fort Lauderdale cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I might prefer to argue -- in a case without in-person sexual exploitation -- for a charge of extortion instead. Here in Florida, our extortion statute better fits the crime; it even explicitly includes extortion that “threatens ... to impute any ... lack of chastity to another.” This is a second-degree felony with up to 15 years in prison for each count, so it’s not a light penalty -- but it gives judges some much-needed discretion to distinguish between adults who exploit children and teenagers exploiting other teenagers.

My firm, Seltzer Law & Associates, offers free consultations to clients facing serious accusations of online crimes, including accusations of sextortion and child pornography. Our new nationwide toll-free number is 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333), or you can contact us online or call 1-877-730-3738.