Six youths plead guilty to swapping nude photos of at least 20 girls

Six male teenagers in Nova Scotia pleaded guilty Wednesday to sharing intimate images of high school girls without their consent, concluding one of Canada's largest prosecutions involving a relatively untested but high-profile law.

The six were charged in July 2016 after police in Bridgewater, N.S., wrapped up a year-long investigation by alleging the youths -- all local high school students -- had distributed intimate images of at least 20 girls.

"We hope that the notoriety of this case produces more awareness across the country that this type of conduct isn't simply boys being boys -- and it's not simply a school disciplinary problem," said Peter Dostal, a senior Crown attorney with the province's special prosecutions office.

"Many instances of this type of conduct reaches the level of criminal activity and needs to be treated as such."

At the time the charges were laid, four of the accused -- all students at Bridgewater High School -- were 15 years old and the other two were 18. However, all were under 18 when the offences were committed, which means their identities are protected from publication under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Dostal said the boys conspired to trade the images amongst themselves. They will be sentenced July 31.

The majority of the victims were also students at the high school, Bridgewater police said at the time.

"This type of activity has been on the radar of schools and law enforcement for quite some time, and now that we're better equipped with the intimate image charge, we're able to have law enforcement address these concerns," he said. "This is often very troubling, very serious conduct that has devastating consequences upon many vulnerable young persons."

The case is one of the first in Canada involving legislation introduced in late 2013 after the death of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons, which captured national attention amid a heated public debate over cyberbullying.

The 17-year-old attempted suicide and was taken off life support after a digital photo -- of what her family says was a sexual assault -- was circulated among students at her school in Cole Harbour, N.S.

The intimate images bill became law in March 2015.

Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the outcome of the sentencing in the Bridgewater case will be important because there are few cases dealing with this type of charge.

He said that under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, jail sentences are unlikely. However, given the scale of the offences, MacKay said the court may be inclined to send a strong message to deter other young people from doing the same thing.

"I would hope that would be the case, that they would take this opportunity to send a message that this is not only unpleasant and hurtful and bad behaviour, it's criminal behaviour with some pretty significant consequences," he said.

MacKay, an expert on cyberbullying, said the six accused may face court-ordered restrictions, including a prohibition on access to the Internet, "which could be quite a big deterrent to young people."

However, the guilty pleas mean the justice system will not receive greater clarity about what kind of evidence in such cases constitutes lack of consent.

"That's the down side," MacKay said.

MacKay said the guilty pleas, which came after a series of pre-trial conferences, weren't expected. But he added that all of the lawyers involved were keen to speed up the court process.

The six youths were also charged with possessing and distributing child pornography, but Dostal confirmed those charges are expected to be dismissed when they are sentenced. The pornography charges weren't needed because the intimate image charges best fit the allegations, he said.

"That satisfied us as far as what we were hoping to prove at trial," Dostal said.

After complaints came in from Bridgewater school officials in 2015, investigators seized a number of electronic devices -- mainly cellphones -- and handed them to the RCMP Technological Crime Unit for analysis.

Court documents released in December confirmed police had uncovered up to 75 intimate images of teenage girls placed in two online Dropbox accounts. At least one photo was taken without a girl's knowledge while she was changing.

The documents said one of the boys provided a statement to Bridgewater police describing how the group functioned, saying, "the girls sent the photos willingly but did not know they were being shared."

According to the allegations in a police application, the sharing went on between Dec. 1, 2014, and May 12, 2015.