February 22, 2019

The Division of Criminal Justice respectfully recommends the Committee’s JOINT FAVORABLE REPORT for S.B. No. 843, An Act Concerning the Unlawful Dissemination of Intimate Images. This bill is brought to the Committee as part of the Division’s 2019 Legislative Recommendations. This bill provides a harsher, more appropriate felony classification for the dissemination via the internet or other electronic means of intimate images, a practice often described as “sexploitation” or “sextortion.”

The legislation was drafted in response to the prosecution in the Judicial District of Windham of a 27-year-old man who hacked into the cell phones and computers of more than 20 female victims starting in 2014. The defendant downloaded all of the pictures and contacts of the victims and also took control of several of their social media accounts. He would then contact the victims demanding nude photographs of them under the threat that he would disseminate the photos he had already hacked from their accounts. If they refused to comply, he would disseminate intimate pictures he had found on the victims’ phones and computer accounts to all of their contacts, including family, school and business contacts. He also posted the photos and personal contact information for the victims on various “revenge porn” and “slut shaming” websites.

The defendant continued to victimize these women from 2014 until his arrest in 2018, reposting their pictures to websites as quickly as the victims could get them taken down.  Many of the victims continue to be contacted by men who viewed their pictures on the various websites today, re-victimizing them every day. Many of the victims still suffer significant psychological harm because of the defendant’s actions. This legislation had been discussed with the victims affected by these heinous criminal acts, and all support the proposed changes and respectfully ask this legislature to pass S.B. No. 843. Many of the victims wished to be here to speak to the Committee to present firsthand how these criminal acts affected them, but due to the short notice of the hearing and many of them now living out of state, they are unable to attend.  In place of their testimony before this Committee, the Division will submit the transcript and audio recording of their remarks made during the sentencing in court. As recounted in the transcript, these young women related stories of inconceivable victimization. Many left their school or jobs, moved out of the area or cut family ties because of the incident. They related how they lived in constant fear of being contacted by someone over the internet or recognizing them on the street because of their pictures being posted on these websites.  One even stated she attempted suicide because of how this affected her. Their experiences provide strong reason for the enactment of S.B. No. 843 and the classification of this conduct as a felony offense.

As part of the agreement under which he pled guilty, the defendant submitted to a post-conviction interview and polygraph where he stated that he attempted to hack more than 70 accounts and phones of females he knew, accessing more than 40 accounts, and ultimately choosing the 20 victims.  If not for the fact that several of these victims were under the age of 16 years old in the pictures disseminated, the state would have been limited to charging the defendant with a string of misdemeanor offenses not fully fitting the gravity of the harm caused to the victims. It was only because some of the victims were under age 16 at the time of the offenses that the state was able to invoke child pornography statutes and the associated felony classification and consequences.

The criminal acts C.G.S. Section 53a-189c sought to prevent at the time of the law’s passage in 2015 have gone far beyond anything the legislature could have imagined.  At the time, the legislature was concerned about an ex-partner posting a victim’s picture online to a “revenge porn” site.  As demonstrated by the recent Windham case, this crime has progressed beyond an ex-partner’s “revenge” and has escalated to “sexploitation” or “sextortion” of victims by hackers or other offenders on social media platforms either downloading intimate images of the victim without their permission or obtaining these pictures by false pretenses from victims who believe these images will not be disseminated, and then exploiting them either personally or financially. The Division of Criminal Justice is aware of several other cases recently that have included threats of disseminating intimate images of the victim in an attempt to coerce the victim into sexual intercourse.

As recognized by the Department of Justice in its 2016 report to Congress “The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction,” crimes of “sexploitation” or “sextortion” involving the illegal dissemination of intimate images constitute “by far the most significantly growing threat” regarding victimization of teenagers.  This report found that it is common for investigations to reveal that a single “sextortion” offender has been communicating with multiple potential victims, as demonstrated by the recent Windham case.  By changing this law, it now puts the punishment on par with other similar crimes, including Computer Crime in Third Degree (C.G.S. Section 53a-254), Possession of Child Pornography in the Third Degree (C.G.S. Section 53a-196f), Identity Theft in the Third Degree (C.G.S. Section 53a-129d) and Trafficking Personal Information (C.G.S. Section 53a-129e).  These crimes recognize that once a photo or personal information is on the internet, nothing can be done to remove it completely.  It is there for anyone to see, and, like child pornography, results in the constant re-victimization of the victim.  Recognizing the significant harm such criminal acts cause, more than 38 other states have passed or revised their statutes since 2015, making unlawful dissemination of intimate images a felony offense.  This legislation would put Connecticut on the same level as these other states.

As Attorney General William Tong stated when he first proposed C.G.S. Section 53a-189c as a member of the Judiciary Committee in 2015, the punishment for this act must be commensurate with the gravity of harm the act caused.  Increasing the punishment for this offense from a class A misdemeanor to a class D felony accurately reflects the continuing serious emotional and personal harm such acts can cause.

The Division has reviewed the testimony being submitted today by the Connecticut Sentencing Commission concerning section 1(a) of the bill. The Division supports the position of the Sentencing Commission with regard to the language and would be happy to work with the Sentencing Commission and the Committee on any substitute language for S.B. No. 843 as now drafted to incorporate the Sentencing Commission language with the enhanced penalties now included in S.B. No. 843. The Division reiterates in the strongest of terms our support for the felony penalty even though the Sentencing Commission has taken no position on that aspect of the bill.

In conclusion, the Division of Criminal Justice respectfully recommends the Committee’s JOINT FAVORABLE REPORT for S.B. No. 843, or, should the Sentencing Commission language be preferred, the Committee’s JOINT FAVORABLE SUBSTITUTE REPORT incorporating the changes suggested to section 1(a) along with the enhanced penalties of the current version of the bill. We thank the Committee for affording this opportunity to provide input on this matter and would be happy to provide any additional information the Committee might require or to answer any questions that you might have.