By ERIC BOEHM
HARRISBURG — Under state law, two 17-year-olds in Pennsylvania can legally have sexual intercourse, but they might soon face fines if caught sending naked pictures via their cell phones.
Legislation headed to Gov. Tom Corbett's desk would ban minors from engaging in the so-called practice of "sexting," in which individuals send naked pictures of themselves or others via cell phone or other mobile device.
Offenders could be subject to anything from a summary offense, which involves only a fine, to a second-degree misdemeanor, which carries a potential penalty of two years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
The bill prohibits judges from sentencing teens to prison if they are caught "sexting," and the second-degree misdemeanor would only kick in if the images were being used in an abusive way or to bully someone.
If signed into law, HB 815 will apply to individuals between the ages of 13 and 17, even though the age of consent for sexual activity in Pennsylvania is 16.
The state House voted 188-3 to approve the bill after it passed the state Senate by a vote of 37-12.
State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, who sponsored the bill, said the law was a response to cases in which sexually explicit images were spread beyond the two people involved in the relationship. In York County, a "sexted" picture wound up on a sex offender's computer, he said.
"It's not just about two people in a relationship, it's getting out there," Grove said.
Under current law, "sexting" would be punished under child pornography laws — if it was punished at all — and since that is a felony, it would follow those teens for the rest of their lives, Grove said.
Since the new offense would be a juvenile offense, it would be eligible to be expunged.
If the picture involved someone younger than 13 or older than 18, it could still be prosecuted under child pornography laws.
State Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango, said the legislation was well-intentioned but ultimately harmful.
"I don't think these issues belong in criminal court," she said. "They're just kids being kids and being stupid. I really think we need to rethink this."
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, said the measure "makes no sense whatsoever in my opinion."
The bill also allows police to seize any cell phone used for "sexting" and hold it under the state's forfeiture laws, which eliminate the owner's right to the property.