Monday, November 24, 2014

Attorney: Zauflik 'very disappointed' at reduced award decision

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2014
Pennsylvania’s highest court has upheld a reduced jury award — from $14 million to $502,661 — for a Falls woman who lost her leg after she was struck by a Pennsbury school bus in January 2007.
In an unanimous decision late Wednesday, the state Supreme Court said a $500,000 cap on damages awarded against state and local governments and school districts applies to Ashley Zauflik, now 24, who was the most seriously injured of the 20 students struck by an out-of-control school bus outside Pennsbury High School’s East campus.
Thomas Kline, the lead attorney in the Zauflik case, said his client is “very disappointed” with the decision.
“But we are already at work this morning to get this fixed for future Ashleys by getting the law changed in the Legislature,” Kline said in an email. “I remain optimistic of ultimately being successful.”
Ashley Zauflik leaves court in 2011
Kline declined to elaborate on what his plan involves.
Doylestown attorney William Goldman Jr., who has been with the Zauflik family since immediately after the accident, broke the news to Ashley about the decision.
“When I shared the news with her she cried and then collected herself and thanked us for our hard work on her behalf,” he said Wednesday. “She had the will to survive and her resilience will continue.”
The newspaper was not successful in immediately reaching Pennsbury School District for comment Thursday.
While the court had empathy for Zauflik, Chief Justice Ron Castille suggested it may be better for the Legislature to address the “complicated public policy questions raised.”
“The facts here are tragic, involving a school student who suffered grievous injuries caused by the uncontested negligence of the school district’s employee,” Castille said in the decision. “But the circumstances are not unprecedented, and the lower courts did not err in relying on our prior cases to uphold the legislation at issue, as against the present constitutional challenges.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously upheld the law limiting civil liability for state and local governments in 1981 and 1986.
Justice Max Baer echoed Castille’s suggestion that the state Assembly address the damages cap. “It is my hope that this case will serve as an impetus for legislative action to increase the $500,000 limitation on recovery from political subdivisions,” he wrote.
The state’s highest court agreed in January to hear the appeal involving the cap that reduced Zauflik’s 2011 jury verdict in her civil suit against Pennsbury School District. The award had been reduced by a county judge who oversaw the case in accordance with the state’s liability cap, and a state appellate court upheld the decision.
Among the issues in Zauflik’s appeal were whether the $500,000 cap on damages is unconstitutional in that it violates equal protection for all citizens and whether the cap infringes on the court’s power to rule on jury verdicts.
The court decision included a detailed history of government immunity in the state and found the cap limit was constitutional and failed to violate equal protection or the separation of powers.

Kline had long contended that Pennsbury could tap a $10 million excess liability policy in place at the time of the accident to cover most of the original verdict. The district argued the policy covered claims that fall outside the parameter of the state cap, such as a federal civil award.
o Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email:; Twitter: @jociavaglia

Advocates: More homeless told to leave Bristol Twp. camps

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2014
Cheryl and her husband, John, would prefer to sleep in a room, not a camping tent. But they’d prefer the tent to nothing at all.
“It’s cold, it’s miserable out here,” the 44-year-old Bucks County native said. “It’s not like we want to do this, but to survive we have to do this.”
This is living in a tent along with 2 dozen other homeless people in muddy woods behind a carpet business off Route 13 in Bristol Township, one of the unknown number of homeless camps tucked in the woods of Lower Bucks County.
The couple has lived there since May. Before that it was the county’s homeless shelter. Before that they lived in their car. Before that it was Cheryl’s sister’s house. And before that it was John’s father’s home in Florida. They haven’t lived in their own place since 2012, after John, 51, lost his job, the couple said.
Now their latest home is in danger of foreclosure by Bristol Township officials. According to a local homeless advocate, they’ve been told the camp must disband by the end of the month. Where they’ll go next is unclear.
Residents of another smaller homeless camp along Maple Beach were also recently warned to find another place to pitch their tents immediately. All but two of those seven residents had relocated to parts unknown as of Thursday, according to Bristol businessman Joe Nocito, founder of the Warming Hearts Project. The Bristol nonprofit organization helps the homeless by collecting clothes to keep them warm, hygiene products and more.
Already this month, Bristol Township and Bucks County officials issued eviction notices to about 25 homeless people living in about five camps in the Lower Bucks area. The evictions have strained the handful of local advocates for the homeless who help those living outdoors.
The latest eviction notices were issued earlier this week by Bristol Township Zoning Officer Glenn Kucher, Nocito said. Kucher referred questions to township Manager Bill McCauley, who referred questions to Bristol Township Fire Marshal Kevin Dippolito, who then referred them to Bristol Township Police Lt. Guy Sava.
But Sava said on Thursday that he wasn’t aware of any decision to remove the so-called Michael’s Camp behind the carpet store, which has existed on and off for years.
Nocito claims he has spoken to the property owner — who also owns the carpet business — and was told he has no problem with the homeless staying there. The newspaper was unsuccessful in attempts to reach the property owner Thursday.
Sava did acknowledge that neighbors have complained about rowdy behavior among some of the camp residents.
“The neighbors are a little fed up,” he said.
Homeless campers say that no one has come back to complain to them.
The homeless campers claim its outside troublemakers who are causing problems and bringing unwanted attention to their living situation.
“Why doesn’t the township come back here and see for themselves?” said Cheryl’s husband, John.
They maintain they’re ordinary people experiencing bad luck, bad health and bad past decisions.
Jessica, 37, one of the newest residents, has lived in the homeless camp for about a month. Like other residents there, she learned about the camp through other homeless people. She wants to find a room to rent with her boyfriend, who has a job and lives at the camp.
At the moment, her other big worry is the thyroid cancer for which she was diagnosed with last year has returned. She recently felt a lump in her shoulder blade, but can’t see a doctor until next month. She had to quit her job and get public assistance after she got sick, she said. She then lost her apartment.
“Especially with health problems, struggling with diabetes, cancer and being out of work,” she said. “It’s hard not having a job, not being able to pay bills.”
The camp consists of a dozen tents, some fortified with heavy tarp banners promoting banks or local TV stations. Two cats — Midnight and Pudge — keep residents company. There are two barbecues, a fire pit and a communal outdoor patio set. A camping shower is set up above a lawn chair.
A 50-year-old former Quakertown resident, who didn’t want to give her name, has lived at the camp behind the carpet store since July after her time ran out at the county’s emergency homeless shelter. Her adult son is still at the shelter, but his time runs out soon and he’ll be joining her outside, she said.
She and her son are both Type 1 diabetics, she said, adding she has run out of glucose test strips and her insulin is running low, too. She also is nursing a broken elbow that left her arm in a sling.
Both she and Jessica said that they are on the housing waiting list through the Bucks County Opportunity Council, but they’re told the wait is five to eight weeks.
Cheryl, too, has her health problems. Last year while living in Florida she underwent surgery to remove part of her intestines and reproductive organs and was left with a colostomy bag and $200,000 in medical bills, she said. She changes her colostomy bag once a month at her sister’s house, but she has also changed it in her tent, though it’s not sanitary, she acknowledges.
Her husband says he is looking for work but can’t find anything despite experience in construction and warehouse work, including operating a forklift and parts assembly.
“We’re not dirty. We’re not filthy. We’re not all drug addicts. We’re not all alcoholics,” Cheryl said. “We are actually just people trying to survive and live and get through our problems, our health issues, bad luck, things that are hard to survive.”

Bensalem: DUI arrests up 25 percent with in-house blood testing

Posted: Saturday, November 22, 2014 
When the Bensalem Police Department launched its new in-house blood testing for those suspected of driving under the influence, officers expected to see more arrests.
But a 25 percent increase in less than three months exceeded their expectations, Director of Public Safety Fred Harran said.
Most Bucks County police departments, including Bensalem, test the blood of suspected intoxicated drivers, which is considered the gold standard for DUI prosecutions. Until September, though, Bensalem used blood tests only when a driver was suspected of driving under the influence of drugs.
When an officer believed alcohol was involved, the suspect was taken to police headquarters for a breathalyzer test, which measured the concentration of alcohol exhaled from the lungs. Breathalyzers were used because they saved time; taking a suspect to a hospital for a blood test can keep an officer off the street for as long as 90 minutes.
Since implementing the in-house blood tests — Bensalem is the first Bucks County police department to operate a phlebotomy lab — DUI arrests have jumped when compared to the same time period in 2013, Harran said.
Bensalem logged 70 DUI arrests between September and Nov. 15 — with the bulk of the increase since September, when the in-house blood draws started, Harran said. During the same two-plus months in 2013, the department had 52 DUI arrests.
Last year, Bensalem made 214 arrests for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
With the new testing, paramedics with the Bensalem Emergency Rescue Services draw and test the blood in a room where police once performed breathalyzer tests. They’re notified when blood draws are needed through the county radio room.
“What is happening is because they’re able to get back on the street quicker, they have more time to spend looking, and arresting, people who are driving under the influence,” Harran said.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bristol Township teen charged with abusing his infant son

Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An 18-year-old Bristol Township man is charged with abusing his 2-month-old son, whose injuries included liver trauma, a fractured elbow and a broken thigh bone, police said.
Tyrone Springer was arraigned Wednesday by District Judge Joanne Kline on three counts of felony aggravated assault and simple assault, endangering the welfare of children and reckless endangerment. After the arraignment, he was sent to Bucks County prison in lieu of 10 percent of $75,000 bail.

The baby’s injuries were discovered last month after he was taken to Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol Township, then transferred to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. Doctors at the Philadelphia hospital found severe bruising to the child's abdomen and the broken left thigh bone, which they said appeared to be the result of “non-accidental” trauma.
Tyrone Springer
Bristol Township police believe the child was injured on Oct. 16 while Springer was caring for him at their home on Stephen Avenue. The infant's mother told police she was home all day except for two hours, when she left the baby was in Springer’s care to run errands.
Before leaving the house, the woman said she changed her son and noticed he was kicking his left leg, which was strange since he usually kicks both legs. But he wasn't crying and she said she didn’t see any obvious injuries, according to a probable cause affidavit. When she returned home, the woman found Springer in the bedroom feeding the baby, who seemed fine, the affidavit said.
The woman said she went downstairs and left Springer and their son alone upstairs. While changing the baby later that night, the mother saw bruises on his chest and noticed his left thigh was bigger than the right one and he cried when she touched it, court documents said. That was when the baby was taken to the hospital.
Springer initially denied any knowledge of the baby’s injuries when police interviewed him on Oct. 17, but later said the baby probably rolled off the bed and fell onto a case of formula that was on the floor. Springer said he didn’t tell anyone what happened because he didn’t want the baby’s mom to be mad, the affidavit said.
But a doctor at St. Christopher’s who specializes in pediatric child abuse said his examination showed the injuries were “unquestionably the result of child abuse.” The doctor told police that a fall of 22 inches – the height of the bed – couldn't have caused the extent of injuries the baby suffered, the affidavit said.
In addition to the broken thigh bone — which was described as an "enormous break" —  the doctor said the baby had bruises on his belly, a thumb-size bruise on his chest, a fractured growth plate on the left elbow and elevated liver functions, which indicate liver trauma.

Middletown man charged in narcotic painkiller overdose death of toddler son

Posted: Tuesday, November 18, 2014
A 38-year-old Middletown man faces a homicide charge in the October overdose death of his 27-month-old son, who authorities say ingested enough prescription painkillers to kill an adult.
“I don’t think it was an accident,” Middletown police Chief Joseph Bartorilla said at a news conference at police headquarters announcing the arrest.
Coco Wallace as he is led to a constable vehicle
Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler said the motivation for the crime will be revealed later.
“What was going through his mind, how the poison was ingested, is a matter for trial,” Heckler said. “The fact remains that child had a massive dose of oxycodone.”
Coco Kollie Wallace was arraigned Tuesday before District Judge Joanne Kline on criminal homicide, reckless endangerment, endangering the welfare of children and possession of a controlled substance. He was sent to Bucks County prison without bail.
As he was led into a constable’s vehicle, Wallace repeatedly denied he killed his son.
“I didn’t do nothing. Why would I kill my own son? It don’t make no sense,” he said.
Middletown police began investigating the death of Sebastian Wallace shortly after his father and grandmother brought the toddler to the Lower Bucks Hospital emergency room on Oct. 22, saying the boy was having trouble breathing, police said. The child was pronounced dead a short time later.
The subsequent autopsy found Sebastian’s blood had three times the level of oxycodone needed to kill an average adult. The coroner estimated the child had ingested six 40-milligram tablets of the drug an hour or two before he was taken to the ER.
Authorities say Wallace was the only person with Sebastian in the hours before his death — and he told them different stories about how his son might have ingested the drugs.
After the county coroner’s office contacted Wallace to ask if he had oxycodone unsecured in the house, he called police to say he wanted to talk to them about how the pills had gotten into his son’s system, according to an affidavit.
On Oct. 21, the day before his son’s death, Wallace alleged that several people stopped at his apartment in the 2100 block of Veterans Highway where he lived with Sebastian and his 9-year-old daughter. Wallace’s daughter wasn’t home when her brother ingested the drugs, Chief of Special Victims Lindsay Vaughn said.
Wallace told police a friend named Melvin had pills with him and when Melvin went into a room in the apartment to get a laptop, he was alone with Sebastian for about three minutes, the affidavit said.
“(Wallace) said, thinking back on it, he believes that Melvin may have given Buddy (Sebastian’s nickname) pills,” according to the affidavit.
At some point, Wallace told detectives he had a bag of 40-milligram oxycodone pills he got from Melvin. Earlier this month, Middletown Detective Andrew Amoroso spoke with Melvin Whitfield, the person Wallace said came to his apartment on Oct. 21.
Whitfield, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, told police he gave Wallace two laptops to decide if he wanted to buy them and Wallace gave Whitfield a bag of pills as collateral. Later that same day, Wallace called Whitfield to tell him he didn’t want the computers, so Whitfield said he took the computers back and returned the pills to Wallace, police said.
Wallace said he never brought the pills back into the apartment, the affidavit said. “He said that he didn’t want to tell me (Amoroso) about the pills because ‘I didn’t want to bring suspicious against myself,’ ” court documents said.
Sebastian’s mother, who lives in North Carolina, told police that days after her son’s death, she was with Coco Wallace in Philadelphia. She said Wallace told her he was “changing his ways” and that he had thrown a bag of oxycodone pills he said was worth $1,000 out of his car window earlier that day, according to a probable cause affidavit. Wallace’s girlfriend confirmed his account to police.

Bensalem man head to trial on stalking charges

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2014
She thought he wanted a haircut. But the hairdresser soon learned Kenneth Lynch wanted much more, she testified Wednesday.
The 27-year-old woman recounted her June 2 encounter at the preliminary hearing for Lynch, 49, of Bensalem, who is accused of harassing and stalking her after she rejected him.
The woman testified she was finishing a haircut at the Bensalem salon where she worked for two years when Lynch walked into the shop and walked up to her station before returning to the waiting area. She recalled previously seeing Lynch at the salon at least a month earlier.
When another stylist offered to take Lynch, he refused, saying he wanted the other woman to cut his hair, the woman testified.
When she went to take Lynch — who police described as a regular customer — to her chair, he told her he wanted to ask her a question first. He then headed outside, and the woman followed, but remained in the doorway of the business, she said.
The woman testified Lynch told her: “I have been wanting you for a long time. I would like to know if you would go on a date with me?”
The woman said she politely declined, telling Lynch she had a boyfriend. He shook her hand and started walking slowly to his car, the woman said.
He did not get a haircut that day, she added.
But what Lynch did was continue his quest to learn personal information about the hairdresser including her address and last name, according to Michael McGrath, who worked at the cellphone store in the same shopping center.
McGrath testified that Lynch approached him outside his work place and asked if he could help him find a “friend” on Facebook, but he only knew her first name. McGrath said he took Lynch’s phone and pretended to look for the woman’s profile before telling him he couldn’t find it.
Lynch told him that he had asked the woman out on a date and she turned him down, McGrath said. Lynch also told him he really liked the woman and wanted to have sex with her, though he was married, he said.
McGrath also recalled Lynch telling him that he was going to “kill” his friend for refusing to go into the salon and try and get more information about the woman.
The next day — June 3 — McGrath told employees at the salon about his encounter with Lynch, he said.
Later that day, Lynch returned to the cellphone store again looking for McGrath’s help finding information about the woman, he said.
Lynch also said that he didn’t care if the woman rejected him, he was going to have sex with her anyway, McGrath testified. Salon employees called police who took Lynch into custody in the shopping center parking lot.
Bensalem Detective Kevin Cornish testified that Lynch provided him with details about his date plans with the woman in an interview while he was in police custody. They included a steak dinner at a nearby chain restaurant and then take her to a nearby park and have sex with her in his car, Cornish said.
The detective testified that Lynch also told him that as soon as the interview was over he planned to continue his pursuit of the woman’s last name and his plan to have sex with her. He also told Cornish he asked other people to help him find out information about the woman, and called the salon twice as part of that effort.
Lynch’s attorney, Ron Greenblatt, argued that while his client’s actions were strange they were not illegal.
“Socially awkward is not a crime,” he said.
Bucks County prosecutor Joanna Cerino countered that Lynch’s pattern of conduct clearly shows he was determined to pursuit the woman despite her rejection.
“That is not awkward, that is alarming,” she added.
District Judge Joseph Falcone agreed with the prosecution and he held Lynch for trial on all charges; he remains free after posting 10 percent of $50,000 bail.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lower Southampton man arrested in veteran grave vandalism

Posted: Tuesday, November 11, 2014
A 29-year-old Lower Southampton man is accused in a vandalism spree that targeted veterans’ graves after his DNA evidence linked him to burnt American flags found at a Bensalem cemetery, police said.
Anthony Carter, of the 200 block of East Bristol Road, repeatedly denied that he vandalized the graves at Rosedale Memorial Park and the Roosevelt Memorial cemeteries as he was led out of Bensalem police headquarters Tuesday — Veterans Day.

“I don’t feel bad,” Carter said when asked if he was sorry about the vandalism.
Anthony Carter
But Bensalem police say that DNA evidence taken off the handles of the burnt American flags found at Roosevelt Memorial Park matched Carter’s genetic profile. Police believe Carter is responsible for five similar vandalism incidents in August and September.
“I’m glad this happened on Veterans Day,” Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran said.
Police found 12 small American flags, grave markers, veteran flag holders and flowers removed from veteran gravesites Aug. 25 at Roosevelt Memorial cemetery on Old Lincoln Highway, according to a probable cause affidavit. The items were grouped together and burned. Cemetery property also sustained damage, police said.
The cemetery caretaker later told police an earlier similar vandalism incident occurred but it was not reported to police.
The next day, police responded to Rosedale Memorial Park cemetery on Richleu Road where the owner reported someone gathered grave markers including American flags and veteran flag holders, grouped them together and burned them, the affidavit said.
Bensalem police started surveillance at the cemeteries and on Sept. 5 a caretaker found three separate areas of the Roosevelt Memorial Park cemetery where small American flags had been grouped together and burned, the affidavit said. Police took routine DNA swabs of the burnt flag handles.
A witness told police he saw a man walking through the cemetery shortly before the vandalism was discovered. A man matching the witness’s description — later identified as Carter — was again seen walking through the cemetery while police were conducting the investigation.
Carter had two matchbooks on him when he was stopped, according to the affidavit. He denied any involvement in the vandalism, but consented to a DNA cheek swab, police said.
Bensalem police received notice Tuesday that Carter’s DNA was a match to the DNA pulled from the burnt flag handles, police said.
Carter was arraigned before District Judge Mark Douple on charges including institutional vandalism, arson, possessing an instrument of crime, criminal mischief and reckless burning or exploding. He was sent to Bucks County prison in lieu of 10 percent of $10,000 bail.

Bristol Twp. homeless camps residents warned: Leave or face arrest

Posted: Monday, November 10, 2014

Twenty-five homeless people received eviction notices Monday.
Instead of 30 days notice, they got three or four.
That came along with a promise of arrest if they aren’t out by the end of the week, prompting local advocates for the homeless to call an emergency meeting to figure out where they can relocate the people.
“They’re wiping us out,” said one 50-year-old man, who didn’t want his name used. He has been homeless about a year and lives in a camp with 10 other people in Bristol woods near a shopping center off Route 413.
Location of homeless camps targeted for closure
Relocating the homeless is becoming harder as more property owners crack down on homeless encampments that have dotted wooded areas of Bristol Township for decades.
The oldest and largest tent city in Bucks County — in woods near Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol — was torn down in May 2012 after a property owner announced plans to redevelop the land. Sixteen people who lived in there had to find other places to lay their heads.
“They are starting to tighten up more,” said Bristol businessman Joe Nocito, who founded the Warming Hearts Project, which works with the local homeless population. “This happens every year around the same time.”
Nocito, along with other local advocates for the homeless, brainstormed Monday night on how to make a smooth transition for some of the residents of five camps in Bristol and Bristol Township who have until Thursday or Friday to move. Their plan started with figuring out where to place the four homeless people who also attended the meeting.
“I’m willing to move anywhere, I just need to get the hell out,” said a homeless man. “They gave us no choice.”
But where to go? The county’s emergency homeless shelter — generally the first step toward transitional housing programs — is full with a waiting list and priority placement for families with children.
Also, not all homeless people want to enter a structured program where they have to follow rules, advocates say.
The suggestion of absorbing the evicted into another existing homeless camps didn’t get far. More people means there is more foot traffic and a greater chance of discovery, which puts others at risk of eviction, advocates said.
“With more and more homeless, it’s harder to stay under the radar,” said Christine Jandovitz, of Advocates for the Homeless and Those in Need.
Some of the homeless expressed concern that moving means they’ll no longer be near one of the handful of bus stops that Advocates for the Homeless and Those in Need make for evening meals and Code Blue winter emergency shelter pickups. But Jandovitz assured them that the organization will adjust stops to accommodate them.
After volunteers narrowed down potential new camp locations, they had to figure out when — and more importantly how — to disassemble the tents and other structures and move them without raising the attention of authorities.
While Warming Heart Project volunteers promised to help with the packing and moving process, Nocito made it clear that residents need to start developing long-term housing plans, something his group can help with. Things like resume building, job searches and connecting them with social services to lift them out of their homeless plight.
“I do not want to be in the same situation a week from now moving. I do not want to have this same conversation next week,” Nocito said. “I am making it perfectly clear, we are not enabling you to be comfortable where you at. We don’t want this to be your new retirement home.”

Neshaminy students could be prosecuted under sexting law

Posted: Monday, November 10, 2014
Is it reckless teenage behavior or child porn trafficking? When it comes to sharing sexually explicit photos of juveniles, the answer depends on the age.
A 2-year-old Pennsylvania law makes it a crime for anyone under 18 to share or transmit nude images of anyone between the ages of 12 and 17, including the self-portraits commonly called “selfies.” And even if an exchange is consensual, potential criminal charges can apply to both the sender and receiver.
But the law gets cloudy when an 18-year-old transmits a nude photo of a juvenile, local defense attorneys said. Technically, if a sender is 18, the juvenile sexting law no longer applies, meaning the person could face a third-degree felony charge for sending a nude photo of a minor, Middletown defense attorney Jason Rubinstein said.
This issue that has become known as sexting recently surfaced locally when Neshaminy School District officials and police confirmed they’re investigating reports of a series of explicit photos shared via cellphone text messages among high school students.
Authorities believe that between eight and 20 students could have been involved, but police haven’t released further information about the alleged incident, including the ages or genders of the suspects and victims. Middletown Chief Joseph Bartorilla said the investigation is continuing.
Three Lehigh County teenage boys were charged last month with transmitting sexually explicit images by a minor, a misdemeanor. The boys allegedly sent nude photos of another teen to fellow students. Lower Saucon Township police allege the boys convinced another boy to send them nude pictures by pretending to be a teen girl on a messaging site.
Sexting is hardly a new phenomenon among teens, according to a 2008 study.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s survey found that one in five teen respondents had electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves. And nearly half of the teens surveyed reported receiving a text message containing nude photos.
Psychologists suggest that sexting among teens reflects a combination of 24-hour instant communication ability and the impulsive nature of young adult brains.
“Teens take naked pictures of themselves mainly to share with current or prospective romantic partners, just as some adults do,” said Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg, who specializes in adolescent psychology. “The difference is that adolescents are less likely than adults to think about the longer-term consequences or the potentially negative consequences of their actions.”
Adolescence is a time when people are especially oriented toward their peers, which means they’re interested in impressing their peers, added Steinberg, the author of “Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence.”
“My guess is that not all of the sharing is intended to deliberately hurt the person who is depicted in the photo. To the extent that sharing a naked picture of someone makes you — the sharer — look cool, by possessing something that others want to have,” he said. “An adolescent may not really think through the fact that sharing the picture will not only enhance his standing, but may also hurt someone else.”
At least 19 states have laws addressing the sharing of nude or sexually explicit photos among juveniles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey’s law also went into effect in 2012 and allows first-time offenders to avoid a criminal record and be placed in an educational program, if the photos are posted or sent without malicious intent.
Before the 2012 Pennsylvania law took effect, sending nude photos of minors — even between minors — fell under child pornography trafficking, a felony crime. The new law uses a tier system for juveniles who electronically send nude images, Langhorne defense attorney Niels Ericksen said.
Minors who consensually exchange nude photos could face a summary charge, essentially a non-traffic violation, he said. A minor who receives a nude photo of another minor and shares it with others could be charged with a third-degree misdemeanor. Teens who distribute a nude photo of another minor without that person’s knowledge or consent could face second-degree misdemeanor charges.
The law also allows for teens found delinquent — the equivalent of guilty in adult court — to enter a diversionary educational program and have their criminal record expunged.
The sexting law doesn’t apply to images taken or distributed for commercial purposes and hard-core sexual images of minors. Teens also can face felony child pornography-related charges for distributing or filming juveniles engaged in sex acts or possessing sexual images of children under age 12.
Such was the case for a Lehigh County girl, who was charged in 2012 with possession and distributing child pornography for posting a video of a teen girl and boy engaged in consensual sex on the social media site Facebook. A county judge dismissed the charges, but the state Supreme Court reversed the decision in January and the girl now faces felony child porn charges in juvenile court.
Rubinstein said he has no problem with the prosecution of teens who share nude photos as provided under the law, though he doesn’t believe individuals whose photos were shared without their knowledge should face additional punishment.
“Perhaps a ‘Scarlet Letter’ punishment, where all minors who sent the pictures have their names put on a list to be posted at the principal’s office,” he added. “Anything to deter our kids from taking ‘selfies’ they will regret, and from forwarding them along.”
The Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia hasn’t tracked prosecutions under the law since it took effect, but its deputy director believes the law unfairly targets juveniles since there is no compatible law prohibiting consensual sharing of photos among adults.
“The idea to carve out a special section of the Crime Code — that only children can commit — struck us as unnecessary,” Marsha Levick said. “They’re using technology we didn’t have 20 years ago to express and explore their sexuality.”
Levick added that the law is a knee-jerk reaction by adults who don’t understand the role that technology plays in young people’s lives and its potential far-reaching and life-altering outcomes. She added that the malicious dissemination of images — beyond the original consensual sharing — is something that should be looked at.