A North Carolina high school quarterback is on the bench, facing felony charges and sex offender status for exchanging nude photos with his girlfriend when both were 16 -- all because of a state law one critic says "makes terrible sense."
Cormega Copening, 17, and his girlfriend, Brianna Denson, were charged as adults in February for sending "sexually explicit" photos of minors -- themselves -- to each other's cell phone when the Fayetteville teens were 16.
"In North Carolina you are considered an adult at 16 years old as far as being charged," said Sgt. Sean Swain of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department. "But to disseminate and receive sexually explicit texts, photos or videos, you must be over 18."
Denson and her attorneys reached a plea deal in July, but felony charges are still pending for Copening, who was benched Aug. 21 from playing as quarterback for Jack Britt High School's Buccaneers when officials there learned of the charges.
Copening was charged with two counts of second degree sexual exploitation of a minor and three counts of third degree sexual exploitation of a minor after authorities found nude images he and his girlfriend exchanged on their cell phones. Each count is a felony charge and a felony carries at least two years in jail.
Copening also faces the possibility of becoming a registered sex offender -- a punishment many legal experts say is unfair and the result of a poorly written statute in a state that declares its residents adults at age 16. Critics of the statute say North Carolina teens may be found in violation of the very laws that were written to protect them.
"You can be labeled a convicted sex offender as an adult at the age of 16, but you are a minor by being under the age of 18 to commit the offense in the first place."
- Karl Knudsen, Raleigh attorney
"You can be labeled a convicted sex offender as an adult at the age of 16, but you are a minor by being under the age of 18 to commit the offense in the first place," Raleigh attorney Karl Knudsen told FoxNews.com. "It really makes terrible sense logically but that's the way the law is written."
"The consequences for this young man are absolutely horrendous," said Knudsen, who is not involved in the case but who has represented similar clients.
"That would hang over his head forever," he said of the possible sex offender registration. "Life, as it should have unfolded for him, will not."
Cormega's ordeal began when authorities asked his mother's permission to examine his cell phone in 2014 as part of a statutory rape investigation in which Cormega was not a suspect, according to Swain.
"He was not a victim, suspect or witness, but was considered an 'involved other' in that case," Swain told FoxNews.com.
When police searched Cormega's phone -- registered in his mother's name -- they found five sexually explicit photos Cormega and his girlfriend had exchanged of one another.
"Some people think we targeted these kids, but we saw this and we couldn’t ignore it," Swain said. "The law is written by the legislators and we are obligated to follow what the legislators tell us to. We have no choice."
"The easiest way for the state to fix it is just to treat everyone under 18 as a minor," he noted.
Swain said the law is designed to catch individuals like North Carolina teenager Mark Adair, a 17-year-old honor roll student at Pine Forest High School who was arrested Wednesday for allegedly soliciting children for sexually explicit photos and videos. Adair was charged with 23 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor involving children between the ages of 12 and 14, according to his arrest warrant.
Neither the Copening nor the Denson families were available for comment when contacted by FoxNews.com.
Parents in the school district said they were shocked to learn of the charges in the Copening case, claiming they were unaware "sexting" was illegal.
"I would not be happy if my kids were doing that, but I didn’t know it would be illegal," one parent, Mandy Kelly, told Fox affiliate WRAL-TV.
Copening is due in court Sept. 30 for the sex charges. If convicted, he would have to register as a sex offender.
Cristina Corbin is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.
Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.