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Young adults can face legal consequences when they date a minor

Maricella Miranda, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. –

In a hotel room two years ago after prom, Samuel J. Benda didn’t question his 17-year-old girlfriend when she took a naked picture of herself in the mirror on his cellphone.

The photo is a reflection of her and Benda, his hands covering her body.

She is holding the camera.

The girl later told a Dakota County judge that she had forgotten about the picture until police came to her house and asked about it. It was her idea to take the photo, she said.

“I just took it,” she testified. “I didn’t think.”

Now, her former boyfriend is facing serious consequences.

Benda was convicted of felony child-pornography possession and is awaiting sentencing.

Teens and young adults sometimes aren’t aware of the possible criminal consequences of dating someone underage, attorneys say. What seems like a high school romance can lead to a felony conviction and having to register as a sexual offender.

And having nude pictures of a minor is technically possessing child porn.

Less severe charges were filed last week against four students at Century Middle School in Lakeville, who are accused of using their cellphones to take and send “inappropriate” photos and video of two girls undressing in the locker room. The girls weren’t nude.

The photos and video spread to more than 40 students at school.

“It almost makes you aghast to see how serious this stuff gets,” said John Leunig, a criminal attorney in St. Louis Park who has defended teens accused of sex crimes.


Minnesota, adults and juveniles convicted of felony criminal sexual conduct or child-pornography possession must register as a sex offender for 10 years. Those who register must tell authorities where they live, work and go to school and what vehicle they drive.

Some parents and attorneys say the consequences should be less severe for a young adult who has a consensual sexual relationship with a minor.

But there isn’t an organized movement in the state to change the laws.

Other states have changed their laws to differentiate consensual sex from predatory crimes. Florida adopted a “Romeo and Juliet” law in 2007, allowing some people to petition the court to forgo registering as a sex offender.

Groups in Michigan, Illinois and California are pushing for similar changes.

Benda’s father, James Benda, said teens convicted of these crimes face an uphill battle when looking for jobs and going to college because of the social taboos of sex offenders.

A college already rejected his son because of his conviction, he said.

“It just angers me that our society considers him in the same breadth as a pedophile,” said James Benda, of Burnsville. “It just doesn’t seem fathomable to me.”


Weeks after George Knowlton started his senior year last fall at Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights, the 18-year-old athlete and honor-roll student was charged with felony third-degree criminal sexual conduct for having consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. The relationship started months earlier when he was 17.

The girl told police she and Knowlton had sex up to 10 times during the summer, according to a Dakota County criminal complaint. The girl also said she specifically recalled having sex with Knowlton on July 20 — three days after his 18th birthday.

Knowlton pleaded guilty to the charge in March, but the conviction will be wiped from his record if he successfully completes five years of probation.

Knowlton was required to undergo treatment for sex offenders. He was banned from Simley and from having contact with girls younger than age 16. He was ordered to 30 hours of community work service and three days in jail.

Attempts to reach Knowlton for comment were unsuccessful.

Tsistas Yang went to high school with Knowlton. Yang, 19, who is pursuing a law degree at Briar Cliff University in Iowa, said it wasn’t fair for his former friend to be charged with a felony for a consensual, long-term relationship. “The punishment didn’t really fit the crime,” Yang said.

County attorneys say they consider several factors before prosecuting these cases. They review the vulnerability of the victim, the relationship of the victim and the accused, if drugs and alcohol were involved and the feelings of the victim’s parents.

While researching his friend’s case, Yang discovered that other states had adopted Romeo and Juliet laws to lessen the penalties for young adults convicted of such crimes, and he asked state Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, to support that here.

“Of course, she’s under the age of consent, and no matter what it’s not right,” Yang said. “But it’s not fair to put him in the same category as a predator.”

Atkins said he is pursuing more information about the issue.

It’s the role of the state Legislature to review laws, especially when the community is petitioning to change them, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. The criminal sexual conduct law was last amended in 2010. The child-pornography law was changed in 2006.

When those laws were created, Minnesota legislators probably didn’t consider how technology, such as cellphones and Facebook, would impact them, Choi said.

Nowadays, sexually explicit pictures texted by kids can be considered child pornography, Choi said. Changing the laws to allow some teens and young adults to forgo registration as sex offenders is something the Legislature should consider, he said.


It’s becoming more common these days for teenagers — even as young as middle school — to share sexually explicit images and messages through cellphone texts and emails, said Phil Villaume, an attorney in Bloomington.

It’s called “sexting.”

And when there’s sexting, there’s probably physical sexual contact happening, too, Villaume said. Depending on the age of those involved, the acts can be illegal.

“What appears to be consensual in nature really is not,” he said.

In most cases, parents blow the whistle on these types of relationships by calling police, which can lead to charges and lawsuits against the alleged perpetrator.

Villaume specializes in lawsuits involving minors who have been victimized by sexting and sex acts. The suits typically are against schools and employers where the crimes have occurred and have sometimes turned into cyber-bullying and harassment, he said.

These days, more teens and their families are coming forward wanting to pursue such lawsuits, Villaume said. Teens may think they’re in a relationship, he said, but once they realize they were victimized under the law, they cooperate with the suit.

Some argue that teens and young adults don’t know what’s illegal.

But “ignorance to the law is no defense,” Villaume said.

Nowadays, many schools have presentations about sexting and cyber-bullying. Schools also have adopted student policies to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said he visits schools regularly to teach kids about the laws. Ramsey County Attorney Choi also speaks at schools.

“One of the responsibilities of the prosecution, law enforcement and the schools is to educate students and their parents about what the laws are,” Choi said.

Jenna Strole, 17, who will be a 12th-grader at Lakeville South High School in the fall, remembers a lecture about the topic in middle school. Kids know about the laws, she said.

But “you don’t really understand until it happens to you,” Strole said.

Korina Nitti, 41, of Rosemount said teenagers know right from wrong. But these days, kids get into trouble at a younger age, she said. Nitti lets her sons, ages 12 and 11, have Facebook pages and cellphones. But she closely monitors them.

“As a parent, it’s hard,” she said.


Samuel Benda said he feels ashamed of his conviction. Today, when he sees kids he knew from high school, they ignore him. He hates leaving his house.

The only time he feels good about himself is in class at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights. Unlike the music college he initially applied to, Inver Hills accepted Benda — even with the conviction on his record.

“When I go to school, I feel important,” he said. “It’s makes me feel like I’m going in the right direction. That’s what school has given me, my dignity that I have lost.”

A jury in January convicted Benda of the child-porn charge and acquitted him of three counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct — which came about because of another sexual relationship.

When that relationship happened, police say, Benda was 19 and the girl was 15.

But Benda, whose birth date was in question because he was born in Sierra Leone, argued that he was younger.

At trial, his attorney, Lauri Traub, presented an authenticated Sierra Leone birth certificate, stating Benda was born in 1993, meaning he would have been 17 years old at the time of the alleged crimes.

When juveniles face child-porn possession and criminal sexual conduct charges, the punishments are less severe, said Dakota County Attorney Backstrom.

Unlike adult sentences, juvenile punishments are at the discretion of the court and could include detention, out-of-home placement, counseling or community service.

But as an adult, the charges could lead to years of probation, a jail sentence and possibly prison. Sentences could be more severe if the convicted person has a criminal record.

Benda was previously convicted of felony assault after a school fight.

A sentencing date for Benda’s child-porn charge has not been set. Benda plans to argue that he was a juvenile when the picture was taken, which could mean a lesser sentence.

But regardless of his punishment, Benda said he still will be labeled a sex offender.




Sex offenders registered in Minnesota as of this month:

– 16,643 adults

– 200 juveniles


In Minnesota, the age of consent for sex is 16.

It is third-degree criminal sexual conduct to have sex with anyone younger than 13 if the offender is no more than three years older.

The same charge applies if the minor is 13 to 16 years old and the offender is more than two years older.

Penalties increase if the age gap is greater.

Minnesota’s child-pornography law makes it illegal for anyone — regardless of age — to knowingly possess images of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

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If ur 17 with one week until ur 18 u can destroy someone’s life. A week later you can shoot adult porn. nice legal system.

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