The Bulletin Board

Citing unintended consequences of legislation, lawmakers kill intimate image bill

By: - June 16, 2021 1:43 pm
A person works on a laptop next to a phone on a table.

Legal experts and advocates say that sending unwanted intimate images is already a crime. (Getty Images)

Lawmakers on Wednesday agreed to set aside a bill that intended to make sending unwanted intimate images a crime. Negotiations on a proposed amendment fell apart after legal experts raised concerns that the bill would weaken existing laws that are used to prosecute sexual offenses.

Plus, legal experts and advocates say that sending unwanted intimate images is already a crime, and there are several statutes on the books that can be used to prosecute it, depending on the specific offense.

A central issue that advocates and legal experts homed in on was that House Bill 296 would have unintentionally reduced penalties associated with the crimes in question down to violations. Sending an unwanted intimate image is already a crime, per current law. But the bill would have had the unintended consequence of decriminalizing it and making it a violation instead.

For example, it would have decriminalized the act of a grown adult sending a sexually illicit picture to a child, which currently is a felony level offenses, said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“I think we all support the concept, what it’s trying to accomplish, but I’m worried about the unintended consequences now reducing the penalty,” said Rep. Darryl Abbas, a Salem Republican, during a negotiation session on Wednesday.

Changes the Senate made to the bill were another point of contention in Wednesday’s session. The Senate version of the bill would have required prosecutors to prove that whoever sent the unwanted image intended to harass the recipient, while the House said the sender could have merely sought to annoy or alarm.

This could raise difficulties for a prosecutor to prove the intent to harass, Abbas said during the Wednesday session.

An amendment was introduced to address those issues, but lawmakers opted instead to work on the legislation in the upcoming session.

Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, raised a concern with a part of the bill that addressed sex offender registration, even though current law already stipulates that an adult who sends a sexually illicit photo to a child can be placed on the sex offender registry.

“I just don’t want to create a law that is going to catch a lot of innocent people,” Carson said. “Maybe it’s just a very simple mistake. I’m not judging anybody. If you like to take pictures of yourself, that’s fine. But sometimes it happens that someone makes a mistake, and they send it to the wrong person.”

Sending sexually illicit photos to a child is already a registerable offense. The amendment proposed by the House was consistent with current law and would not have created a new class of people that could be placed on the sexual offender registry.

“I don’t know who is accidentally sending photos,” said Rep. Allison Nutting-Wong, a Nashua Democrat who is the prime sponsor of the bill. She advocated for sending the bill forward with the amendment, but ultimately the lawmakers agreed to take up the bill again in the next session.

Carson also suggested during the negotiation that the bill be further amended so that it would address only children.

“Perhaps we can just kind of focus on kids,” Carson said. “No child should get these types of photos, even if there are kids trading amongst themselves.”

Abbas said he would consider adopting only the amendment proposed by the House in advance of the session.

According to Grady Sexton, there are seven statutes already in New Hampshire law that are commonly used to address these issues.

“We do currently already have the tools that prosecutors need to criminalize these acts,” she said.

“There is no glaring loophole,” she said, even without the passage of this additional legislation. She said the outcome of the negotiation “was certainly better than passing  a version of a bill that unintentionally decriminalized certain acts of child sexual abuse.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.