Likely inspired by "Dateline NBC," several Florida counties have periodically been dedicating time and resources to having law enforcement officers lurk in various chat rooms and pretend to be children 14 or younger who might be willing to engage in sex with adults. These Internet sting operations seek to draw out men interested in having sex with minors. But is this good law enforcement?
In just the past two weeks, St. Johns and Manatee counties announced the arrests of 50 men who allegedly arranged to meet who they thought were young girls in order to have sex. In Seminole County, one man was arrested on similar charges, although he was targeted individually.
While we all would like to see any real child sex offenders stopped in their tracks, Internet sting operations raise a host of important questions and need to be carefully scrutinized. Unfortunately, press reports universally hail these arrests as clear evidence of guilt -- even naming names.
The media was perfectly willing to share the names, cities, professions and photos of all 51 men with the public despite having no information about the facts of each case. Essentially, the press publicly announces their supposed guilt, leaving the public to assume that each one will later be convicted of a child sex crime.
However, the conviction rate in these operations is far from 100 percent. For example, only 83 percent of those arrested in Fort Myers in a 2009 episode "Dateline NBC" were convicted.
Meanwhile, potentially innocent men are publicly shamed -- and typically fired from their jobs. Manatee County confiscated seven vehicles in the sting. And, in the two cases where bail was reported, the amounts were $150,000 and $200,000.
Beyond the critical harm to the reputations of innocent men caught up in these stings, the fact that so many aren't convicted may demonstrate the serious constitutional issues with the operations.
Although a Manatee County officer was careful to tell the press that "we are not allowed to entrap them," the possibility that police may be luring the men into crimes they might not ever have committed on their own is troubling -- and entrapment is often an effective defense in these cases.
Internet sex stings may seem like a good idea, but we only hear about the aggregate "round up" -- we rarely see follow-up reports about those who are acquitted. As citizens, we can't allow the fact that a group of men was arrested to distract us from the fact that each defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- in a court of law, not public opinion.
- Bradenton Herald, "Manatee sheriff: Internet sex sting nabs 35, including teacher," Richard Dymond, March 26, 2013
- Orlando Sentinel, "Latin teacher arrested on sex charge; cops say he exchanged 800 texts with 'victim,'" Rene Stutzman, March 25, 2013
- Daytona Beach News-Journal, "4 local men arrested in St. Johns County child sex sting," Katie Kustura, March 20, 2013