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HomeNewsLocal governmentRevenge Porn Bill Wins Support in Senate Committee

Revenge Porn Bill Wins Support in Senate Committee

Testifiers spoke in support of a revenge porn bill sponsored by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory. (Photo courtesy V.I. Legislature)

A bill designed to combat the distribution of sexually explicit photos without consent of the photo’s subject was discussed in a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday. Lawmakers heard from law enforcement and social service experts working with those who have fallen victim to what has become known as revenge pornography.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens, chair of the 35th Legislature Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, commended Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, the bill’s sponsor, for bringing Bill No. 35-0182 up for consideration. If passed by the full body and signed into law, it would make non-consensual dissemination of sexually explicit material a crime.

Testifiers sharing their opinions on the bill said most examples of revenge porn involve couples whose relationships have ended. Having intimate photos circulated among friends and coworkers, they said, has led to embarrassment, shame, unemployment, and, in some cases, emotional devastation.

The effects of revenge porn let loose across the internet are especially harmful to the young, said Anya Stuart of the Family Resource Center. “It’s heartbreaking to hear a child in high school who is trying to do their best and trying to do the right thing, but sometimes can be influenced to do the wrong thing,” Stuart said.

“This has been a long time coming. We know the age we’re in and I am asking for your support for this bill,” said Frett-Gregory. Proposed legislation calls for misdemeanor charges for first-time offenders; second or subsequent offenses would lead to felony charges.

Those who are found to have committed multiple offenses or have spread revenge porn against multiple victims would face stiffer penalties. Possible penalties upon conviction include registration on the territory’s sexual offender registry.

Law enforcement officials testifying on Wednesday weighed the pros and cons of Bill No. 35-0182. “We can send a clear message that this behavior will not be tolerated in this community,” said Assistant Police Commissioner Mario Brooks.

Brooks urged the bill’s sponsor to add a provision for the misuse of deep fake technology. Non-committee member Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger appeared by way of videoconferencing to say she is working on a bill to address that aspect.

Both Brooks and Justice Department Criminal Chief H. Timothy Perry said revenge porn offenses should be added to the list of 14 domestic violence crimes that already appear in the Virgin Islands Code. Forty-eight U.S. states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have already criminalized non-consensual distribution of sexual imagery.

The criminal chief commended proponents of the bill, saying the language on revenge porn covers a gap in the law that current statutes hadn’t covered before. But neither the police nor the prosecutor said their agency was equipped to pursue revenge porn spread electronically.

“We are working with some of our contractors to find means and ways to investigate these kinds of crimes. We need help,” Brooks said.

Committee member Sen. Ray Fonseca asked if the bill would affect the dissemination of imagery captured during public events like Carnival. The sponsor said no.

After two hours of discussion, Gittens said he would join Frett-Gregory as a co-sponsor. “I want to commend the sponsor of this measure, and I’m looking forward to the amendment to the bill to cover adults.”

Then, the chairman added a cautionary message directed to the territory’s youth and their choice of companions.

“Today, we sweet; tomorrow we sour, and God only knows what could happen during that sour time. My caution to young people is: Don’t do it,” he said.

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