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Law varies on whether Ryan Adams' alleged sexually charged texts with underage girl are a crime

Analysis: There’s a uniform draft age, voting age and drinking age, but the age of consent for sex crimes remains an inconsistent patchwork among the states and the federal government.
Image: Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams performs during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 25, 2015.Amy Harris / Invision/AP file

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is reportedly investigating singer Ryan Adams for his alleged sexually charged communications with an underage fan.

They will have a lot to investigate. According to The New York Times, Adams allegedly sent several thousand text messages to the then-15-year-old starting in 2013. The messages reportedly included sexually explicit material. The communication apparently went both ways, as Adams supposedly exposed himself to her on Skype.

NBC News hasn't seen the messages or confirmed that the FBI is involved.

Adams, 44 — a multiple Grammy nominee as a performer who is also a producer for other prominent artists — denied the allegations in a statement Wednesday, saying that "the picture that this article paints is upsettingly inaccurate."

"Some of its details are misrepresented; some are exaggerated; some are outright false," Adams said. Referring to allegations from a former musician who told The New York Times that Adams pursued her sexually when she was a minor, he added: "I would never have inappropriate interactions with someone I thought was underage. Period."

"I am not a perfect man and I have made many mistakes," Adams said in his statement. "To anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally, I apologize deeply and unreservedly."

Representatives for Adams didn't return a request for comment regarding the FBI's reported involvement.

Skyping, Snapchatting, or otherwise messaging sexually explicit images with a minor could fall under a wide array of federal and state criminal statutes, including those regarding child pornography.

Child pornography is defined by federal criminal law to include any photograph or video depiction of someone under 18 engaging in sexually explicit conduct. “Sexually explicit conduct” includes images of “lascivious exhibition” of the genitals or pubic area.

An adult’s receipt or distribution of pornographic images of someone under 18 is a federal crime, as is an adult sending his own sexually explicit images to someone under 16.

Obscenity laws in Ohio, where the alleged underage girl lived at the time, also prohibit, among other things, possessing any obscene material, that has a someone under 18 as one of its participants. New York, where Adams was during some of the alleged communications, has some variation in age limits: it’s a crime to knowingly possess any obscene performance which includes sexual conduct by a child less than 16 years of age. But, New York also outlaws knowingly promoting a sexual performance by a someone under 17.

The United States has nationalized a uniform draft age (18), voting age (18) and drinking age (21), but the age of consent for sex crimes remains an inconsistent patchwork among the states and the federal government. In New York, a consensual sexual relationship may be legal under New York’s statutory rape law, but receiving consensual “sexting” images in that relationship could be illegal under federal law.

Defendants accused of conduct similar to the accusations leveled against Adams often claim they had no knowledge that the images sent to them were of a minor.

To be convicted for knowing receipt and possession of child pornography under federal law, at least, a defendant must know that the images depict actual minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. The knowledge requirement is twofold: it goes both to the receipt of the images, and to the nature of the images. However, “knowledge” remains a hazy element. In cases where a defendant searches on file-sharing networks for “pre-teen” images, the case for knowing receipt is easier to make. In a “consensual” relationship where the adult claims he was assured the minor was an adult, there is often other evidence suggesting the contrary, such as messages about keeping the chats secret from parents.

The penalties for child pornography are serious in the federal system. For example, a first-time offender convicted of producing child pornography faces a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison. Other federal and state statutes are equally severe in their punishment. Mandatory sex offender registration follows defendants long after their prison terms have concluded.