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Pa. prosecutors quick to put 'revenge porn' law to work

| Saturday, May 30, 2015, 10:40 p.m.

A year ago, the explicit photos she didn't know were taken would have remained online. Calls and photos from strangers would have kept coming.

She would have had no recourse.

The young woman, who attended college in the Pittsburgh area, discovered that her former boyfriend had posted explicit photos of her on the Internet.

Hers is one of 11 cases across Pennsylvania in which prosecutors have used a “revenge porn” law that was enacted six months ago.

The law makes it a crime for anyone to post explicit photos of a former partner online or send them to others. Violators could be sentenced to a year in prison and fined $5,000 if the victim is an adult, or five years with a $10,000 penalty if the victim is a minor.

“It's scary to know that a law has been implemented specifically to address situations such as these. It means that this is becoming a common occurrence, and that's really frightening,” the woman said. The Tribune-Review does not identify victims of sex crimes.

For some victims, a “selfie” sent during a relationship can be horribly repurposed for revenge. In this woman's case, she was unaware she had been photographed until the images appeared on social media.

“I never considered my sex life as an important factor in my identity, but this situation has placed me in a position in which I'm seen solely from a sexual point of view, and it's humiliating,” she said.

Allegheny County, which has had four cases, leads the state in the number of times prosecutors have used the law. Delaware County used the law three times; Bucks County, twice. Erie and Lackawanna counties each prosecuted one case. Prosecutors could not provide the outcomes of those cases.

In Lackawanna, an 18-year-old man set up fake social media accounts by using his ex-girlfriend's name and nude photos she had sent him during their relationship, according to Assistant District Attorney Suzanne Tierney. He also sent the photos to his ex's mother.

“With the age of Facebook and social media, it's probably a good law,” Tierney said. “I think we'll be using it a lot more.”

Pittsburgh police charged Dustin Moffat, 32, twice under the law, accusing the Lawrenceville man of posting X-rated photos when women tried to “break up” with him. One set of photos led to charges against Moffat for allegedly raping a 13-year-old girl. He remains jailed.

“I don't know that I want to say I'm encouraged, but I do feel vindicated,” said state Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, who championed the legislation last year.

A nightmarish crime

The woman who spoke with the Trib said that finding out that her intimate moments had been shared with countless strangers “was like my worst nightmare come to life.”

“It's absolutely heartbreaking to know that someone I loved and trusted used my body and my most vulnerable moments as weapons against me,” she said.

Kristen Houser, vice president of public relations for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said American culture tends to keep sexual activities private, even those that are consensual.

“If it's not consensual and filmed and shared, it really compounds the harm,” she said. Many victims, she said, “are terrified of how other people will respond.”

Police and others in the legal system receive sensitivity training on how to interact with sexual assault victims; whether revenge porn will require such training remains to be seen.

The woman victimized by photos her former boyfriend shared said she's lucky to have support from family and friends.

“I've been able to talk to them about everything without fear of judgment,” she said. The case has been stressful, but police and prosecutors “made themselves available to answer questions and address my concerns along the way,” she said.

Such an approach helps make victims comfortable and confident enough to come forward, Houser said.

“We all make decisions in our private lives, and we have a right to do that,” she said. “But when somebody changes the game on you and does it with the intent of humiliating or embarrassing or harassing you, it's most important to focus on the crime.”

Another avenue

Sixteen states have laws specific to revenge porn. Victims in states without such laws can have a difficult time in pursuing legal action against perpetrators, Houser said.

There is another option.

Six months ago, the Pittsburgh-based law firm K&L Gates began its Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project — a first of its kind — which aims to protect victims by asserting that people have a right to privacy in intimate photographs and videos.

David Bateman, a trial lawyer in the firm's Seattle office and co-founder of the project, said it combines his team of forensic cyber investigators with the expertise of co-founder Elisa D'Amico of K&L Gates and Mary Anne Franks of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative in Miami.

Attorneys advise victims of their legal options, which can include suing for damages. If the victim is the one who took and sent a photo or video, attorneys use federal copyright law to demand that the photos be taken off the Internet.

The lawyers do the work pro bono.

Fifty lawyers across the United States, Europe and Australia have worked with more than 200 victims of such cyber crimes, but “that is really a drop in the bucket,” Bateman said.

Indeed, there likely are many more victims than those who seek legal action, Houser said.

“It's the same reason rape reporting is so low,” she said.

Any start is good, Bateman said.

“It's making a difference for people, but it is frustrating because you realize how large and difficult the phenomenon is,” he said.

Lawyers look to law enforcement for help, he said, and developing laws to deal with the issue “can only give them another avenue.”

Broadening the law

Pennsylvania might amend its law because it narrowly defines revenge porn by requiring that the victim and perpetrator have been intimate partners.

“It's certainly a very common scenario, but it's by no means the only scenario,” said Franks of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. She was disappointed that lawmakers did not follow her suggestion for a broader approach when she consulted with them in drafting the law, she said.

She noted recent events at Penn State University, where members of Kappa Delta Rho fraternity allegedly posted compromising photos of women — including some who appear to be asleep or passed out — on a private Facebook page.

“This is exactly the kind of case (Pennsylvania's) law will never reach,” she said.

The women pictured likely were not partners of the men who took the photos, Franks said, and the fraternity members can argue that they did not intend to harm anyone, since the Facebook page was private.

The woman whose ex-boyfriend posted photos said talking about what happened helped her realize that “this was something that happened to me and not something I did wrong.”

“Although I was afraid of people judging me or seeing me differently ... I've found nothing but sympathy and support throughout the process, from friends, family, co-workers and law enforcement,” she said.

Megan Guza is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mguza@tribweb.com.

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