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Friday, February 22, 2013

Bill to Strengthen VT's Child Porn Law Heads to Full Senate for Floor Vote

Posted By on Fri, Feb 22, 2013 at 11:40 AM

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Yesterday the Senate Judiciary committee voted unanimously to approve a bill making it crime to possess "or access with intent to view" lewd depictions of children and/or those under the age of 16 engaged in sexual acts. We wrote about the bill this week in a story about efforts to strengthen Vermont's child pornography statute

S.19, sponsored by the Judiciary chair Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), now heads the Senate floor, where it's scheduled for a second reading today. "I don't anticipate much problem with it," Sears says.

The committee amended S.19 from its original version to remove one so-called "affirmative defense" that would enable those charged with the crime to escape prosecution. In Sears' original bill, a defendant could claim that he or she possessed "fewer than three depictions" of child pornography but made a prompt and good-faith effort to destroy those images and didn't share them with anyone but law enforcement.

But as Sears explained, setting a minimum number of allowable images was "problematic given new digital technology." As he explained, a single, downloadable web page or digital file may contain 50 or more illegal images but still be interpreted by a judge or jury as a "single depiction."

That said, the new child-porn bill will require prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant actually intended to view or download the illicit images. The revised bill also leaves in place a potential loophole for offenders: Consumers of child pornography could still store illegal files in their computer's trash folder, then claim as a defense that they made a good-faith effort to delete those files but neglected to empty the trash.

While Sears acknowledges that the added burden of proof could make convictions somewhat more difficult under state law, he said the language about "intent to view" is there to protect those who unknowingly receive illict images via email or accidentally download them but have no interest or desire to view them.

By all measures, both the availability of child porn and the number of arrests for possessing or viewing it have been steadily rising in the last decade. In 2009, U.S. law enforement agencies made an estimated 4900 arrests for possesion — three times as many as in 2000 and a 33 percent increase over 2006. As of 2012, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had identified and tagged more than 17.3 million such images circulating worldwide.

Vermont investigators and prosecutors emphasize that these aren't just "thought crimes." According to data published last month by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, nearly one-third of those arrested for child-porn possession in 2009 were dual offenders — that is, they had also committed a hands-on sex crime against a minor. 

Similarly, the 2008 "Butner Study Redux" of 155 sex offenders in federal custody for child pornography possession. That study found that 85 percent of the offenders admitted that they had committed at least one hands-on sexual offense with a child, with the number of reported child victims averaging about 13 per offender.

Illustration by Stefan Bumbeck.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

More by Ken Picard

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