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Arizona lawmakers trying to keep kids' faces off sex dolls

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Arizona state senators are weighing legislation designed to ensure that a picture of your child does not end up on a sex doll bought by a neighbor.

But it's not as broad as originally proposed by Reps. Selina Bliss and Quang Nguyen.

The original version of HB 2169 advanced by the two Yavapai County Republicans sought to make it a felony for anyone to buy, transport or possess what the legislation defined as a "child sex doll.'' That is defined as an "anatomically correct'' doll, robot or mannequin that has features that resembles an infant or child younger than 12 and is "intended to be used for sexual stimulation or gratification.''

But lawmakers had second thoughts when it was pointed out to them there are court rulings that indicate the simple possession of such a doll, absent more, falls within First Amendment protections.

The new version awaiting a Senate roll-call vote keeps the essence of the original proposal -- but with a key distinction: It would only be illegal if the doll "uses the face, image or likeness of a real infant or minor who is under 12 years of age.''

And that, according to Detective Randall Snyder of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, is a real problem.

He said the dolls are available, and not just on the "dark web'' used by criminals and others seeking to hide their activity.

"These dolls have been found on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, eBay and even Etsy,'' Snyder told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee when the measure was introduced there.

"In some of these cases, these dolls can be modified based upon pictures found on social media to look exactly like the child the predator wants it to look like,'' he said. "These dolls can look like my kids, your kids, your grand kids based upon pictures that are posted on social media so that some pervert can go out there and engage in simulated sexual behaviors with a doll that looks like our kids.''

And Snyder said these dolls are realistic and not just blowups or something people might get as a party favor.

"They're designed to look like a child, they're designed to act like a child, they're designed to sound like a child,'' he explained. And they're also anatomically correct.

Jim Heard, a deputy Pinal County attorney, told lawmakers that this isn't an effort to get ahead of the issue.

"We're behind this problem already,'' he said.

All that alarmed Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson.

"Child sex dolls -- did you ever think you'd be hearing about that?'' she told colleagues.

She said predators need to deal with their urges.

"And they have found this through a doll that mimics or resembles a child in their neighborhood, a child in their family, a child that they've seen, or just any child that resembles a young person,'' Wadsack said.

Snyder said that none of this is illegal under federal law because "there's no actual harm to a real child,'' particularly if the image cannot be linked to an actual child. And sometimes these dolls have more generic and even computer-generated faces.

But he said it's not as simple as adults using dolls that look like children for sex.

Snyder said his experience is that those dolls become a "gateway'' for people to start looking for real children. And he said the dolls even can be used by predators to "groom'' children into believing certain acts are normal.

Wadsack agreed.

"Having sex with a child sex doll is going to lead 100% to them no longer getting satisfied in that way and moving on to actual children,'' she said.

And the fact this is happening at all, Wadsack said, should be a warning to parents.

"When you're putting your photographs of your children online there is the possibility that somebody is stealing that photograph and creating a doll in the image of your child and having sex with the image of your child,'' she said.

"Be very careful, parents,'' Wadsack continued. "We live in very dangerous times.''

The key to what could make the bill legal is that question of whether the image is of an actual child.

Katherine Gipson McLean, a lawyer with Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, cited a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case which concluded that virtual or artificial depictions of children, even engaged in sexual conduct, was protected speech.

"No actual children were harmed in the production,'' she said. And McLean said the justices rejected arguments that allowing that type of material would lead to criminal behavior.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he was willing to challenge that ruling. But short of that, he said it's clear that the legal line gets crossed when a doll has the image of a real child.

"So now, we're not talking about a made-up, non-existent person,'' Kavanagh said. "We're talking about an actual real person digital image.''

McLean was unwilling to concede that would be enough of a difference to make the measure legal.

Bliss disagreed.

"That 2002 Supreme Court decision on digital art porn is indeed a First Amendment right of free speech,'' she told lawmakers. "But this, folks, is not digital art.''

The measure cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with only Sen. Anna Hernandez, D-Phoenix, in opposition.

"We do need to keep our kids safe,'' she said. But Hernandez said she's not sure that laws aimed at protecting children from abuse should equate actual youngsters with dolls.

"That does not keep them safe,'' she said, saying the language in HB 2169 suffers from "vagueness.''

If the measure gains full Senate approval it still needs to go to the House which never has considered the measure.

There's another issue: timing.

As crafted, HB 2169 contains an emergency clause which would make it effective on the signature of the governor.

But that first requires approval by two-thirds of both the House and Senate. If it passes with a margin less than that, it would not take effect until 90 days after the session ends, something at this rate could mean August -- or later.

That possibility bothered Kavanagh.

"If you don't pass the emergency measure, you'll basically be getting people who wish to purchase these who are in Arizona, or sell them who are in Arizona, you would essentially be giving them six months to nine months of time to stock up before it's illegal,'' he said.

But Rep. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said she's not convinced that's a problem.

"It's ownership, right?'' she asked, noting the language banning possession. She said that would mean a police officer entering a home and finding one of the offending dolls once the law took effect could still make an arrest.

Kavanagh, however, said he remains convinced that an emergency clause is necessary to put an end to the sale and advertising of these dolls.

"If you want to stop that as soon as possible, then you have the emergency clause,'' he said.


On Twitter: @azcapmedia