In Oklahoma, we call it “Soliciting Sexual Conduct or Communication with a Minor by Use of Technology.” In other states, they call it “Internet Luring” or “Online Solicitation of a Minor.” No matter how it’s termed, the laws against online solicitation of minors are intended to protect the nation’s children from dangerous internet predators–those who lurk anonymously behind a computer screen seeking to lure children and young teens to victimize.
In order to enforce these laws, many law enforcement agencies and organizations, such as the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), have turned to conducting internet stings to ferret out these predators.
Shows such as Dateline NBC’s series “To Catch a Predator” fed public fears that pedophiles skulked behind every computer monitor, seeking children to manipulate and exploit. Producers worked with an organization called “Perverted Justice.” Members of the organization would act as decoys, engaging in explicit online conversations with adults and arranging meetings. When the subject of the sting would arrive at the designated meeting place, a TV show host was there instead, badgering the subject with questions and publicly shaming him or her before law enforcement slapped on the handcuffs.
What many viewers of the show do not realize is that a great many of these cases were thrown out after the judicial process showed conflict of interest and entrapment in making these arrests. It wasn’t law enforcement; it was entertainment. This “showmanship” came at the expense of many men’s reputations, relationships, and professions.
The series is now off the air, but internet stings continue. However, are these “catch a predator” stings any better than the ones drummed up for television ratings?
Many people say they are not, and there are several lawsuits and appeals around the nation indicating that online stings are often entrapment. Some say go as far as to say that “Cops Create Sex Offenders.” In the linked article, a mother writes:
“My son is currently facing charges for Internet luring he went into an adult website where the age was to be 18 he started talking back and forth with a profile seating she was 20 after a few texts back and forth he felt there was a connection and began conversations with her then at some point she stated that she was only about to turn 15 yes he should have stopped communication then, but a few more texts went and the charges came. He was not in any kind of chat room for kids gaming rooms or anything just trying to meet someone his own age which turned out to be a cop in and adult place.”
We reached out to this mother and got a little more information about the case. (DISCLOSURE: This is not a client of our firm, nor is this case even from the state of Oklahoma. We have permission from the mother to share her story. We take attorney-client confidentiality very seriously.)
The woman’s 22-year-old son was visiting an adult chat room that expressly stated that all users must be at least 18 years of age. He struck up a conversation with a female whose profile said that she was 20 years old. The two chatted back and forth, and at some point, the “woman” admitted that she was not 20, but rather a couple of months shy of 15. The young man began to back-pedal, knowing that engaging in sexually explicit conversation with a minor was a bad idea, but the “girl” kept pursuing, even saying that she must “want it more” than he did. Because the young man had already established an online relationship with her when he thought she was an adult, the conversation continued.
Eventually, the two decided to meet. Along the way, however, the young man decided that meeting a young teen–even in a public place in the middle of the afternoon, as arranged–was a bad idea. He arrived at the destination, but instead of getting out to meet the girl, he stayed in his car and drove away.
Police pulled him over and arrested him, charging him with Internet Luring, a sex crime which, in the state where he was charged, is punishable by 5 years to life in prison and lifetime sex offender registration.
The young man is treated now as an online child predator, even though he was in no way seeking out the companionship of a minor when he entered an adult chat room and began chatting with whom he believed to be a 20-year-old woman. He even tried to back away from the relationship when she said she was actually a minor; however, the adult male decoy posing as a teen pursued.
Are these the acts of an internet predator and pedophile luring children? Or do they seem more to be the acts of a lonely young man who was, in fact, lured himself by law enforcement agents looking to make a high-profile arrest?
Reform of sex offender laws is not popular. Obviously, we want to protect our children from sexual abuse and exploitation. However, something must change in the way these undercover stings are handled. If a predator is actively seeking a child to exploit, is he or she going to look in an adult chat room intended for those 18 and older? Or will he or she be more likely to visit sites heavily populated by children? If a subject tries to avoid further communication with a decoy, does the decoy’s continued pursuit of sexual conversation constitute entrapment?
Clearly, entrapment is illegal. However, law enforcement agencies seem to blur the line between undercover investigation and entrapment in online sex stings.
In Florida, a number of arrests are being challenged after internet stings conducted by an ICAC task force. In these cases, the investigating officer posing as a minor is the one who actually initiated a sexual conversation, in violation of ICAC rules.
Similar cases around the nation will reveal that these online predator stings are little more than modern-day witch hunts, with the only true victims being those ensnared by unethical law enforcement practices.