Law that Prevents Predators from Sexting Kids Unconstitutional, Court Rules

A Minnesota appeals court judged affirmed that the state's "grooming law," while good in theory, criminalizes protected free speech.
June 27, 2016, 7:07pm
Photo by Soren Egeberg via Stocksy

Last week, a state law preventing adults from sending sexually explicit images to minors was ruled unconstitutional in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The judge, Peter Reyes, declined to overturn a federal court ruling that said the language of the law violated the First Amendment.

The appeal stems back to a case in 2014: On November 29, a father reported to the police that he found porn on his 15-year-old child's iPad. "The photographs depicted a closeup of a female's genitals, a close-up of a female's buttocks covered by a thong, and a female naked from the waist to the neck," court documents state. The images were sent by a woman named Krista Ann Muccio via Instagram direct message. Following a search warrant, it was revealed that Muccio, a 41-year-old former lunch lady at a combination middle school–high school, initiated sexually explicit conversations and had exchanged sexually explicit photographs with the minor. According to reports, the boy knew her from school.

Read more: When Dating a Teen Is Legal, but Sexting with Her Is Not

On April 2, 2015, Muccio was charged with one count of communication with a minor describing sexual conduct and one count of possession of pornographic work involving minors. During her trial, Muccio asked the court to dismiss the first charge, which they did. The law was written to criminalize the practice of "grooming" children under 15 for sexual abuse by desensitizing them to pornographic images, but the court ruled that the statute prohibiting the electronic solicitation of children was so broad that it also limited protected speech.

The state recently appealed the district court ruling and asked to reinstate the charge against Muccio, but the appeals court unanimously declined to overturn it. Writing in the June 23 opinion, Judge Reyes said the language of the solicitation statue is indeed too vague. He gave several examples of media transmissions that could be considered illegal under the law, which basically criminalizes any adult who distributes content on the internet "with the intent to arouse the sexual desire of any person" if that content is subsequently viewed by a child. Reyes imagines a scenario in which "a film producer produces a movie with sex scenes, with the intent to arouse the sexual desire of some person who views the film, makes that movie available on an [i]nternet streaming service, and a child age 15 or younger sees it," among other things.

Photo by Rebecca Rockwood via Stocksy

Caroline Palmer, with the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, disagrees with the judge, and she worked with the state to appeal the lower court's ruling. "We didn't think the law was as broad as the district court was making it out to be," Palmer said in an interview with Broadly. "The intent of the law has always been to look narrowly at situations in which somebody is grooming a youth into possible sexual conduct. We felt like the intent of the law was pretty clear and, to our knowledge, we haven't heard of the law being misused in any way to go beyond that scope."

Semantics aside, the basis of the law, of course, is not without merit. In at least one state, there has been a marked increase in teachers using social media to send nude pictures and start sexual relationships with underage students.

The state is now petitioning for a review of the case in the Supreme Court of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault is looking into rewriting the law's language if the Supreme Court bid fails.