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A star high school football player’s career has come to a crashing halt, and his freedom for the next ten years is in grave jeopardy after authorities found evidence of the student-athlete sending sexually explicit messages and images to his girlfriend, who is also in high school.

Authorities in Fayetteville, N.C., according to WRAL, accidentally ran across the text messages and images while they were investigating another individual being accused of statutory rape. Carmega Copening, 17, was not even a person of interest and his mother, confident her son had not committed any crime, agreed to let authorities check out her son Copening’s phone to find evidence of third-party messages going back and forth. This took place last fall when the two teen sweethearts were each 16 years old.

What police found in Copening’s phone detoured their investigation and led the former football player to be thrown in jail and the girlfriend also being charged with felonious distribution of pornographic material.

Authorities were investigating an alleged statutory rape of another individual when they asked Cormega Copening’s mother if they could check out the the phone for third-party information being sent back and forth. Copening was not even a person of interest in the initial investigation, much less not even a suspect, so his mother innocently allowed officers to look through the teen’s phone for possible evidence to help the investigation of this other person.

Officers noticed Copening’s phone and noticed nude photos that he took of himself and others sent by his 16-year-old girlfriend. Copening was immediately arrested for possessing child pornography. In North Carolina, you can only receive and send explicit material if you’re over 18. However, individuals who are 16 can be charged as adults when accused of committing a crime.

Copening has been charged with two counts of second-degree sexual exploitation and three counts of third-degree exploitation. If convicted, he could face 10 years behind bars and be forced to register as a sex offender. The teen has been dropped from his high school team.

His girlfriend, probably equally horrified that she could wind up in a hardened prison for something she thought was innocent fun with her high school boyfriend, decided to opt for a a plea deal and was sentenced to one year probation without access to a cellphone, a class on making smarter life decisions, and a $200 fine.

Many observers and legal pundits believe the laws are antiquated, that the teens were being treated much too harshly since they were both underage at 16 years old. Moreover, they argue that the law was designed to protect innocent youth from much older sexual predators — not two teens of the same age. But authorities says the law is clear when it comes to this matter.

“If you are under the age of 18 and disseminate pictures of yourself or receive pictures of someone under that age, it falls under the sexual exploitation of minors’ statute,” North Carolina’s Cumberland County Sergeant Sean Swain told The Independent.

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