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Recent Developments in Internet Child Sex Sting Operations

An internet child sex sting operation in Hillsborough County recently concluded with the arrest of sixteen men in August.  Among those arrested in “Operation Small Talk”  were a registered sex offender, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and former Manatee County Sheriff’s Office sergeant.  Six of the men attempted to meet the fake teen in person.  Some of the men even had adult items with them such as condoms and sex toys in anticipation of having sex with the child.  Those arrested in Operation Small Talk are facing felony convictions, sex offender probation, registration as a sex offender and up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.

Then, again in October twenty-two men in the Tampa area were arrested in “Operation Social Bust” while attempting to arrange sex with detectives posing as teenage girls and boys using fake social media accounts.  Most of the suspects were charged with a combination of using computer services or devices to solicit certain illegal acts, transmission of harmful material to a minor and unlawful use of a two-way communication device.  One suspect offered money to a detective he thought was a 15-year-old child.  He then arrived at what he believed to be the child’s home with cash and condoms in his pocket. Because he arranged to pay for sex, he also faces a human trafficking charge.

During these types of operations, law enforcement officers typically pose online as young teens seeking sex with older adult males.  Sometimes the officers pretend to be the parent of a child looking for sex.  And, the undercover decoys usually also pretend to be the child themselves in some communications.

Just a few days ago a former Clay County school board candidate was arrested after an undercover investigation into his online attempts to solicit sex from a teen.  Aaron Michael Knowles, 46, unsuccessfully ran this year for the School Board District 2 seat in Clay County.  Knowles was charged with two counts of trying to entice a minor for unlawful sex and one count of unlawful use of a two-way communication device.  The Sheriff’s Office’s Internet Crimes Against Children group began its investigation after receiving information Knowles was trying to solicit sex from a teen. According to the Sheriff’s Office, an undercover operation was conducted with a detective posing as a 14-year-old who was solicited for sexual acts online

In addition to law enforcement conducting these sting operations, a non-profit organization in Jacksonville, Waits List Inc.  states its mission is to “hunt down” sex traffickers, child predators and pedophiles all over the United States. It operates with private citizens running its sting operations modeled after those run by law enforcement.  Instead of being arrested, however, when alleged perpetrators show up expecting to have sex with a minor, the Waits List operatives confront and chastise them and then post a recording of the encounter on the Waits List Facebook page.

It doesn’t appear any of the people “outed” by Waits List have been subsequently prosecuted in Duval or surrounding counties.  In fact, a recent Times Union article indicates local law enforcement authorities discourage Waits List’s activities, claiming those activities are better conducted by local authorities trained in the legal nuances of conducing such investigations.

Under state law, if you are found guilty in these types of cases, you must usually be sentenced to a minimum of 21 months in state prison.  Those found guilty have usually received sentences ranging from 3 to 8 years, depending on their particular circumstances.  Under federal law, many of these cases are charged as violations of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2422(b), attempted enticement of a minor.  If you are found guilty of that section, you are subject to a minimum mandatory prison sentence of 10 years.  Thus, the stakes are much higher when these cases are brought in federal court, which they usually are if the communications with the purported minor occurred across state lines.

A threshold defense to consider in these cases is entrapment.  Entrapment occurs where the police improperly induce you to commit a crime under circumstances where you would not have otherwise done so.  An evaluation of the viability of an entrapment defense requires a thorough review of the email and text dialog between the you and the undercover decoy to determine whether the police exerted improper influence over you.

Even if entrapment is not a viable defense in your case, there are still steps that can be taken to mitigate, or substantially lessen, the penalties you incur.  One common way to mitigate the harmful effects of your case is to obtain a psychosexual evaluation.  A psychosexual evaluation focuses on your psychological and sexual functioning. The evaluation examines your sexual interests, attitudes and behaviors to determine whether you have any deviancy issues. It also evaluates your risk of re-offending or acting out sexually in the future.  Provided you are not formally diagnosed as a pedophile and provided further you are found to be at low risk of reoffending, then your lawyer should be able to negotiate a lower sentence in your case.

Depending on the nature of the allegations against you, it may be warranted for you to also undergo a sexual history polygraph examination.  A sexual history polygraph examination is used to investigate your lifetime history of involvement in unknown or unreported offenses and other sexual compulsion, sexual preoccupation, or sexual deviancy behaviors. A favorable sexual history polygraph examination can be very helpful in both negotiating a resolution of your case with the government, or at your sentencing if your case disposition is to be decided by the court.

Finally, character references can be helpful in these types of cases.  The best references are people who have known you a long time, have observed you around teens and can state you’ve never expressed any improper sexual interest in, or made sexual comments about, those teens.  It is further helpful if your references can also state they have young children and have no concerns about you interacting with them.

As can see, there are many steps that can be taken to help minimize the effect of your arrest for participation in an online child sex sting.  If you’ve been arrested for traveling to meet a minor, unlawful use of a two-way communication device, transmission of harmful material to a minor or for any other crime in connection with a child sex sting operation, you should consult with a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney with knowledge about, and experience with, these kinds of matters.  Doing so will give you the best chance of avoiding a lengthy jail or prison sentence, extended offender probation, and/or having to register as a sex offender.  Please call me for a free consultation to discuss how I can best help you with your internet sex sting case in Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach, Yulee, Macclenny, Green Cove Springs, Middleburg, St. Augustine or surrounding areas.

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