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Impact Check: How effective is Florida’s revenge porn law?

Despite taking effect in 2015, law is rarely used to prosecute state court data shows
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The Impact Check
Posted at 3:25 PM, Nov 29, 2023

“Yes, I’m a victim of revenge porn”

Madison Conradis wants you to know what she’s been through.

“Yes, I'm a victim of revenge porn but I hate that term,” she told us recently. “You hear revenge porn, and you automatically think disgruntled ex-boyfriend. That's not always the case. That wasn't the case with me,” she said.

Instead, it was a casual friend from college who she never had an intimate relationship with but left her personally exposed and publicly humiliated.

“I found out by waking up one morning to just floods of messages. ‘Hey, just so you know, there's photos of you everywhere,” she recalled.

For Madison, the images stemmed from a professional photo shoot she was a part of in 2011 for a modeling portfolio.

Sexy, she described, but not pornographic. Then the photographer’s account got hacked and several of Madison’s images got stolen.

By 2015, photos Madison never intended for the public to see were being posted and shared online hundreds, even thousands of times, she explained.

“They would send photos to my boss, my parents, my friends, my sister. Literally, anyone you could think of just try to harass you and make your life miserable.”

 The law

Florida, like most states in the U.S., has made revenge porn a crime.

Known formally as sexual cyber harassment, the Florida law was passed in 2015 and makes it illegal to electronically distribute sexually explicit images of a person without his or her consent.

Last year, after Florida Senator Lauren Book became a victim herself, the legislature unanimously voted to strengthen Florida’s law by doubling fines and adding penalties for stealing or manipulating images.

But across the state, we’ve discovered, Florida’s revenge porn law rarely results in criminal prosecutions.

Few cases end up in Florida courts

Using state court data, we obtained through a public information request; the data shows since 2017 less than 800 people have been criminally charged with violating Florida’s sexual cyberharassment law in Florida.

That’s about 8 people per month statewide, with some of the state’s most populous counties logging some the fewest cases.

In Hillsborough County, about 80 cases involving Florida’s revenge porn law have been filed. In Palm Beach, just 31. And Broward, just nine cases have been filed since the law took effect 8 years ago.

Understanding why revenge porn cases don’t show up in court

“Sadly, in a lot of these cases, people don't know that there's even a law in place to protect them,” explained Stephanie Myron, a West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in cyber sexual harassment and stalking.

Revenge porn, she explained, is prevalent.

“I get calls almost daily from all over the state and all over the country,” she said.

But Myron is not surprised the number of criminal cases citing the law is low.

Most of her clients just want the images taken down, something a civil injunction can accomplish without the costly, time-consuming and often emotionally draining criminal pursuit.

“They don't want to have to testify again, they don't want to have to drag this out. They don't want to have to be deposed or talk about this or face it,” she said.

Jurisdictional challenges also stall criminal cases says attorney and victim advocate Elisa D’Amico. D’Amico helped get Florida’s law passed and currently sits on the advisory board for the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

The group offers free legal services to victims of revenge porn.

“Many times, I’ve had someone come and say ‘I talked to this law enforcement department, but I live here, and they said I have to go where that the perpetrator lives. Then I went there, and they said, but you don't live here.’ So, it's like pinball and the victim is the pinball,” D’Amico explained.

While efforts to create a uniform federal law are in the works, Myron and D’Amico believe educating local law enforcement about the state’s existing law is still needed.

Building the case herself

For Madison Conradis, it took several visits to her local police just to get a report filed.

“I think that a lot of the people that work in law enforcement don't necessarily know all the laws,” she said when asked about the challenges she faced.

Madison ended up building the case herself. With help from her twin sister who’s a Florida attorney, the sisters managed to unmask Madison’s online stalker and discovered he had done the same thing to five other victims, including a then 14-year-old girl.

“I think we both knew that we could make a change,” she said.

Madison’s case eventually got the attention of the FBI.

Victory after being victimized

In 2021, six years after Madison’s pictures first surfaced online without her knowledge or consent, Christopher Buonocore, an acquaintance from college, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for cyberstalking and sextortion. https://www.justice.gov/usao-mdfl/pr/new-york-man-sentenced-15-years-federal-prison-cyberstalking-and-sextortion

“It doesn't seem real sometimes,” Madison explained. “But it feels good to be where we're at now. We’re on the side of healing. We've put the person in jail, and we're advocating now,” she said.

Starting with educating victims and police about a law that’s been on the books in Florida for years but is rarely showing up in court.

In response to our findings, Florida Senator Lauren Book’s office sent us the following statement:

“Unfortunately, I understand firsthand the harm that comes from the rise in digital crimes, harassment, and trafficking of images. This kind of crime can ruin lives; once stolen and unconsented materials are posted online, they never really go away – leading to an endless, vicious cycle of predation and re-victimization. With young people living their lives more and more through digital devices, I fear we are only going to see an uptick in this criminal digital predation. While we’ve made great strides in Florida, more must be done on the federal level to provide legal recourse for platforms that host these trafficked images. Unfortunately, the law has not caught up with the realities of our digital world.”

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