By Laila Kearney
SARATOGA, California (Reuters) - Teenagers who share sexually explicit images of others on the Internet to harass them could soon face tougher punishment under California legislation proposed on Friday, spurred by the suicide of a teen after images of her sexual assault were circulated to other students.
The new bill, dubbed Audrie's Law after 15-year-old Audrie Pott, who killed herself in Los Altos in September 2012, is the latest effort by lawmakers in California and other states to curb online cruelty that has been blamed for a number of teen suicides.
"I believe that this bill will bring justice for victims and really update the law to make it relevant in our 21st century, connected society," Democratic state Senator Jim Beall told reporters as he presented the bill.
The law would make it a crime for juveniles, those under age 18, to take or distribute images of a sexual nature of a minor with the intent to harass, shame or intimidate the person, said Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who helped draft the legislation.
Under current law, minors are charged with distributing child pornography for similar crimes, but that does not address the bullying aspect of sharing the images, Rosen said.
The proposed law would also allow juveniles to be tried as adults if they are accused of sexually assaulting an intoxicated, developmentally disabled or otherwise incapacitated person.
The bill's backers said it would discourage sexual assaults at alcohol-fueled parties by teens, and any ensuing online taunting of victims.
The law applies only to minors because it amends existing legislation aimed at juvenile offenders.
Audrie Pott's parents filed a wrongful death suit against three 16-year-old boys, accusing them of sexually assaulting their daughter and scribbling vulgar markings on her body while she was passed out from drinking during a party at a friend's home, eight days before she hanged herself.
The three boys were arrested on criminal charges of sexual assault by digital penetration and of distributing a photo of a minor in sexual positions - both felonies. Rosen declined to comment on the status of the case because it involved juveniles.
The San Jose Mercury News, citing anonymous sources, reported the boys admitted to penetrating Audrie while she was passed out and possessing cellphone photos of her partially naked body. It said one was sentenced to 45 days in juvenile hall and the other two were sentenced to 30 days.
California lawmakers have taken other steps to protect people from having sexually explicit images of themselves circulate online against their will.
Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a first-in-the-nation law criminalizing "revenge porn," the distribution of private, explicit photos of other people on the Internet, usually by former lovers or spouses, to humiliate them.
Cyber-bullying is illegal in California, and last year a law made it easier for schools to discipline perpetrators even if they act outside of campus.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Mohammad Zargham)