Just days before suing the Tiverton Police Department for unlawfully arresting an 8-year-old student without cause last week, the ACLU of Rhode Island sharply criticized the Barrington Police Department for “an unconscionable use of law enforcement authority” in bringing criminal charges against children as young as 12 years old for violations of state “social media” laws. These recent incidents, the ACLU said, show an increasing trend towards punishing rather than teaching Rhode Island’s youth.
In a letter sent last Monday to Police Chief John LaCross, ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown called the Department’s “overzealous” enforcement actions “very dubious as a matter of public policy and, in some instances, as a matter of law,” and called for a “reexamination of the Department’s approach to these issues.” The letter cited as examples three incidents of charges brought against minors as reported in the Barrington Times.
In the first, dating back to February, the Police Department arrested a 12-year old boy for sexting, after he allegedly sent nude pictures of himself to a 12-year-old girl he had been corresponding with online.
The ACLU letter stated:
“While we certainly agree young children need to be taught the dangers of sexting, arresting 12 year olds to prove the point is, in our view, precisely the wrong way to do it.” The letter noted that children “can sometimes be irresponsible and careless; it comes from being that age,” and they “need to be taught that sharing nude or partially nude images of themselves can have bad consequences.” But, the letter argued, “absent extraordinary circumstances, it should not be a matter for the police or the courts, especially for children as young as twelve years old.”
In October, the Department charged a 17-year old boy with “electronically disseminating indecent material to minors” for allegedly posting an “obscene” video clip of a teenage girl, even though it was done with the consent of the girl and did not show her face. Noting that “this charge involving consensual conduct among teenagers has the potential to subject this boy to five years in prison and lifetime registration as a sex offender,” the letter called the Department’s actions “an unconscionable use of law enforcement authority.”
In the third incident that occurred just last month, a 15-year-old boy was charged with cyberstalking after he allegedly sent Instagram messages to four girls, all on the same day, asking them for nude photos. The letter noted that, in order to avoid fundamental First Amendment problems, the cyberstalking statute applies only to a “pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time.” Nothing in the news story about the incident suggests this standard was met, and so the charges may not even have been authorized by law.
The ACLU’s letter concluded:
“There clearly appears to be a disturbing pattern of overenthusiastic police enforcement of social media ‘crimes’ when other measures would be much more effective and much less damaging to children. We ask you to review these incidents and the Department’s policy approach to addressing teen misconduct on social media in order to consider more humane responses that don’t use the criminal law as the resolution of first resort.”
The ACLU’s Brown today pointed to the police response to these incidents in Barrington, the Tiverton case, and the recent videotaped incident of a school resource officer in Pawtucket body slamming a 15 year old student before arresting him for disorderly conduct, as examples of an increasing and disturbing pattern of the “criminalization of youth” in the state.
A copy of the letter is available here: