Bills would create crimes for ‘digital grooming’ of minors, vulnerable adults

Two bills were heard in the Judiciary Committee March 23 that would create offenses for digital grooming of minors and vulnerable adults.

Sen. Mike McDonnell
Sen. Mike McDonnell

Under LB106, introduced by Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell, a person 19 or older would commit the offense of digital grooming if they use an electronic communication device or social media to communicate with a vulnerable adult with the intention of committing a misdemeanor or felony against that individual.

Violation would result in a Class IIIA felony charge, punishable by up to three years in prison and nine to 18 months of post-release supervision.

LB107, also introduced by McDonnell, would create the offense of digital grooming when a person 19 or older uses an electronic device or social media to communicate with someone 16 or younger with the intent to engage in sexual contact, extortion or receipt of a visual depiction of the child for sexual gratification.

Violation would result in a Class IV felony charge, which carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment and one year post-release supervision. A person found guilty of digital grooming of a minor also would be required to register with the Nebraska Sex Offender Registry.

McDonnell said current laws regarding enticement have not been updated since 2009. As the digital world has changed rapidly, he said, vulnerable adults and minors are at a higher risk of being digitally groomed.

“These bills strengthen current statutes to close gaps and allow law enforcement to intervene earlier in the grooming process, before sexual violence or exploitation occurs,” McDonnell said.

Amie Konwinski, founder and CEO of Smart Gen Society  — an Omaha-based organization dedicated to online safety and privacy — testified in support of the bills. In Nebraska, she said, between 50 and 70 percent of students reported receiving offers of financial gain in exchange for connecting with strangers online.

“It takes, on average, 10 minutes for an online predator to make a conversation sexualized and to ask for nude images,” Konwinski said. “For law enforcement, unless images received meet the threshold of child pornography … officers are unable to intervene in the grooming process and have to wait until greater harm has been perpetrated on the victim.”

Julia Hebenstreit, speaking on behalf of the Kim Foundation and the Nebraska Association of Behavioral Health Organizations, also testified in support. Survivors of digital grooming can face years of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions, she said, that in some cases lead to suicide.

“We can help to eliminate those struggles for many, and possibly even save a life from suicide, by intervening earlier, deterring offenders by strengthening statutes and preventing potential sexual abuse and online exploitation,” Hebenstreit said.

Spike Eickholt, representing the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, spoke in opposition to both bills. Nebraska already has several crimes related to online enticement, he said, and LB107 would result in lesser penalties than existing laws already provide.

“Violation of this current law is punishable by a [Class] IB felony, which is a mandatory minimum of three to 50 years in prison,” Eickholt said. “The bill proposed is a Class IV felony which is zero to two years in prison.”

Erin Feichtinger, speaking on behalf of the Women’s Fund of Omaha, testified in a neutral capacity on both proposals. While not opposed to the intention behind the bills, she expressed concern over the term “grooming,” which she said has been conflated with comprehensive health education.

“We have some concerns, given the current heated political climate in Nebraska around comprehensive sex education and the LGBTQ+ community, that those who provide resources for either could be subject to investigation [or] the penalties provided for in these bills,” Feichtinger said.

The committee took on immediate action on LB106 and LB107.

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