How a child porn penalty bill led to high drama

One of the session’s most scrutinized measures came to an unlikely topic—child pornography. The bill, carried primarily by Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, soared through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives fairly quickly. That version allowed charges for possession of each individual photo, with a maximum of 18 months for each charge. Some argued this could […]

How a child porn penalty bill led to high drama

One of the session’s most scrutinized measures came to an unlikely topic—child pornography.

Department of Public Safety General Counsel Amy Orlando and Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque
Department of Public Safety General Counsel Amy Orlando and Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque

The bill, carried primarily by Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, soared through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives fairly quickly.

That version allowed charges for possession of each individual photo, with a maximum of 18 months for each charge. Some argued this could result in charges of harsher penalties for possessing the images or videos than the creation of the images or videos.

But things got heated in the Democratic-controlled Senate as disputes over the bill arose on bipartisan levels.

The Senate Public Affairs Committee unanimously changed the penalties from per image to a maximum of nine years for possession.

But it was the question of sexting by teenagers and whether they should be charged that resulted in the most discussion.

During Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, spoke of the catch-22 of casting a vote against even a bad policy bill with the title “child porn” in it.

“I’m not that fond of this bill,” Torraco said in committee. “Of course when I say I’m not that fond of this bill, the media is going to go crazy and say I’m in favor of child porn, and that’s not the case.”

Torraco and others raised concerns about how the current state Child Exploitation Act doesn’t already exempt teenage sexting.

The bill, which would have increased penalties of possessing child pornography from 18 months to nine years if it becomes law, could put teens who sext other teens consensually into prison for a long time and make them sex offenders, senators feared.

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said while teens sexting made him a “furious parent,” they shouldn’t go behind bars for it.

“That’s just part of being young and dumb,” McSorley said in the same committee.

Attorney General Hector Balderas, whose office was behind Maestas Barnes’ bill, still took a firm stance against amending the bill to exempt teen sexting.

Balderas’ staffers angered many lawmakers when they walked out of the room after the Senate Finance Committee amended the bill to exclude teen sexting. One of Balderas’ staffers who walked out was with the expert witness alongside Maestas Barnes.

Nevertheless, the bill now exempts teenagers aged between 14 and 18 from “knowingly and voluntary” sending lewd pictures to each other. Images under this exemption must be made “without coercion.”

On the last night of the session, senators struck back against the  attorney general’s office by kicking Balderas’ staffers off of the Senate floor when Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, sought to have them as an expert witness on an amendment to the bill. Once the bill came back to the House of Representatives for concurrence, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, made his frustration with that office clear.

“It’s a shame that the lobbying efforts made by some were not as a responsible and were not as forward thinking and not as experienced in legislating as you,” Maestas told Maestas Barnes. “So I’m glad those lobbying folks didn’t win the day.”

The bill, with the amendment exempting sexting, now sits before Gov. Susana Martinez for approval. Martinez has not commented on the bill’s changes throughout the session, though she has praised the Legislature for passing tougher laws on child pornography.

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