This is the first of a two-part series examining how law enforcement is blurring the lines on due process.
POLK COUNTY, Florida – In the decade since Chris Hansen and "To Catch a Predator" popularized Internet sex stings, more than 1,200 men in Florida alone have been arrested, accused of preying on underage teens and children for sex.
But as the stings put more and more men behind bars, detectives are working harder and harder to keep up their arrest numbers. And the tactics they're using to put alleged sexual offenders in jail are sweeping up large numbers of law-abiding men, too.
A yearlong investigation by 10 Investigates reveals many of the men whose mugshots have been paraded out by local sheriffs in made-for-TV press conferences were not seeking to meet children online. Instead, they were minding their own business, looking for other adults, when detectives started to groom and convince them to break the law.
While detectives used to post ads suggesting an underage teen or child was available for sex, they now routinely post more innocuous personal ads of adults on traditional dating sites. When men – many of them under 25 with no criminal history - respond, officers switch the bait and typically indicate their age is really 14 or 15 years old. However, sometimes the storyline isn't switched until the men, who were looking for legal love, already start falling for the undercover agent.
According to arrest affidavits inspected by 10 Investigates, law enforcement is also now routinely making first contact with men who have done nothing wrong, responding to their ads on dating sites like PlentyOfFish.com. After men start conversing with what they think are adults, officers change the age they claim to be, but try to convince the men to continue the conversation anyway.
Officers bend rules in sex stings to boost arrest totals.
Other examples include undercover officers showing interest in a man, then later introducing the idea of having sex with the undercover's "child." If the men indicate they weren't interested, they were still often arrested for just talking to the adult.
Critics of the stings, including a number of prominent Tampa Bay law enforcement leaders, tell 10 News the operations make for better press conferences than they do crime fighting. Many of the men who are arrested for sexual predator crimes see little jail time.
But Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, when asked about over-aggressive detectives, instead went on the offensive: "The concern (I have) is that you inflate your investigative reporting to make it glitzy."
Judges have also been very critical of some of the tactics used in the stings, which violate Internet Crimes Against Children guidelines. Among the comments from judges in recent entrapment decisions (case numbers withheld to protect the defendants):
- "It was the agent who repeatedly steered the conversation back to sexual activity with a minor."
- "The government made a concerted effort to lure him into committing a crime."
- "The undercover officer failed to follow the procedures …"
- "The law does not tolerate government action to provoke a law-abiding citizen to commit a crime."
The judge in one dismissed case criticized the undercover officer for failing to follow procedures and "the officer controlled the tone, pace and subject matter of online conversation, pushing toward a discussion of sexual activity."
The blurring of legal and ethical lines has led many agencies such as the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, and most of South Florida to focus their cybercrime resources on other areas of online abuse. Instead of conducting "To Catch a Predator"-style stings, they spend their time and effort on areas where there are known victims and children at immediate risk, like child porn and sex trafficking.
But the time- and resource-intensive predator stings are still alive and well in West/Central Florida, operating under the watchful eye of ICAC task force leader Judd.
Grady Judd's 'favorite topic'
Sheriff of Polk County since 2005, Judd has made it clear that targeting sexual predators is his top priority. He called hunting predators his "favorite topic" at a recent predator sting press conference, and he has invited national media outlets along for some of the operations. The predator stings have been featured in three MSNBC specials as well as a recent CNN series.
But Judd has been much less forthcoming when it comes to questions of how detectives lure in their targets and whether innocent men are getting swept up to.
Judd has failed to provide public records to 10 Investigates on the following issues:
- The language in the ads detectives post.
- How detectives responded when innocent men showed no interest in speaking to teens.
- If detectives are doing the stings because there is a problem of teens looking for adults online.
- How many men get baited before detectives find someone to investigate.
Judd said the overwhelming majority of men who communicate with detectives do the "right thing" and either end communication or report the officer posing as an underage teen -- or parent offering up a child -- to authorities. But he won't even turn over those communications over, a possible violation of Florida State Statute 119.
Judd says the records are exempt from state records laws because all of those men are still "under investigation," for they may surface in future stings. However, that indicates Judd - and other law enforcement leaders around Tampa Bay and Sarasota who have now used the same exemption to withhold records - have active investigations open on hundreds, if not thousands, of men who did nothing more than legally communicate with adults on legal websites.
The state's best-known lawman also showed little concern for due process during a Tuesday press conference to tout arrests since March in predator-style stings. He pointed to 132 mugshots on a giant posterboard and called the men "sexual predators."
But when 10 Investigates pointed out some of the men had already been cleared of charges, he said they were still fair game because "we have a very liberal - a very forgiving - criminal justice system."
That system may give defendants the benefit of doubt and assume "innocent until proven guilty;" but Judd makes sure the mugshots and stigma of being arrested for a sex crime haunts the men for the rest of their lives.
Critics point out many of the 1,200 men who are ultimately arrested in Florida and called "sexual predators" weren't preying or even looking for kids; many were seeking adults. The majority of them were in their teens or 20s at the time, and approximately 97 percent of the men had zero history of any sexual crimes or accusations.
"The biggest waste ever"
While countless West/Central Florida law enforcement agencies have gotten involved in the predator stings, including the sheriff's offices in Polk, Pinellas, Manatee, Citrus, and Sarasota, some agencies were noticeably absent at Judd's season-ending press conference.
Judd indicated the Hillsborough sheriff's office was a part of the operation, but was unable to attend. However, an HCSO spokesperson said the the agency has not been a participant.
While HCSO has a full-time "Internet Predator" unit, it has been reluctant to dedicate the huge resources needed for a "To Catch a Predator"-style sting. Instead, HCSO detectives are focused on offenders that are participating in "the proliferation of child porn," focusing on infants and young children who are exploited.
Hillsborough detectives say those type of arrests tend to yield better conviction rates, longer prison terms, and also provide law enforcement other leads on areas of crime like sex trafficking.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco has adopted similar priorities, saying his cybercrime unit is extremely proactive and focused on the areas of the worst abuse.
"Any way you can take a sexual predator off the street is tremendous," Nocco said. "Especially those that are online looking at child pornography ... they may do something physically against a young little kid."
Pasco also spends a lot of time and effort focused on teen-on-teen cybercrime because it can often be addressed before it ruins a person's life permanently.
Nocco was complimentary of ICAC, but says he's not a huge fan of the "To Catch a Predator"-style stings, saying the prosecutions often don't hold up.
"You spend your resources, you arrest somebody and then they walk right out. It's the biggest waste ever," Nocco said.
ICAC stings typically cost tens of thousands of dollars - sometimes close to $100,000 - in costs and officers' time, and that doesn't include the costs to prosecute and jail defendants.
10 Investigates found light plea sentences are sometimes offered because the suspects simply aren't considered dangerous offenders, contrary to Judd's claims.
Local law enforcement leaders also refused to turn over ICAC guidelines, claiming they were confidential investigative material. But a copy 10 Investigates obtained through court records indicates the online undercover stings, which typically don't involve real children or victims, are not even specified in the list of priorities agencies are supposed to target:
- A child is at immediate risk of victimization.
- A child is vulnerable to victimization by a known offender.
- A known suspect is aggressively soliciting a child(ren).
- Manufacturers, distributors or possessors of images that appear to be home photography with domiciled children.
- Aggressive, high-volume child pornography manufacturers or distributors who either are commercial distributors, repeat offenders, or specialize in sadistic images.
- Manufacturers, distributors, or solicitors involved in high-volume trafficking or belong to an organized child pornography ring that operates as a criminal conspiracy.
- Distributors, solicitors and possessors of images of child pornography.
- Any other form of child victimization.
Almost all of South Florida's law enforcement agencies have moved away from the stings as well. The Broward County Sheriff's Office, which is in charge of the South Florida ICAC task force, told 10 Investigates it was time for the agency to move on to other areas of cybercrime fighting.
The "other" victims
There may be no excuses for men who victimize children or those that look for underage victims online.
However, it's easier to make the case for the men who were swept up in the stings when they were looking online for adults.
"(My son) was stalked by law enforcement for three days," said the mother of a 22-year-old arrested in one of the stings. 10 Investigates is protecting the identity of her family.
The son was on Craiglist's personals pages, looking to meet other adults. He responded to a "no strings attached" ad for a 26-year-old woman. He says her story changed a few times, including the claim she was only 13, but he was skeptical.
He spoke on the phone to the undercover and she sent a photo, in which she was wearing a wedding ring. He said he was sure she was an adult (she was), so he made plans to meet her. When he arrived, he was arrested. He was later sentenced to two years of house arrest and a lifetime as a registered sex offender.
"He had a life of promise; he had an education," his mother said. "That's all been shot."
She says her son is paying the price of opportunistic lawmen.
Board-certified defense attorney Anthony Ryan says law enforcement officers have become experts in coercing innocent men into breaking the law.
"They are really good at subtly turning conversations and normal statements into sexual innuendo - whether or not the other side intended that," he said.
Ryan, who has a practice in Sarasota, just got a 23-year-old client's case dismissed in Manatee. A judge ruled deputies entrapped his client, writing that their tactics had "no place in modern day law enforcement."
Ryan adds that officers are pushing the boundaries further and further to keep up their arrest numbers and keep the federal ICAC grants flowing. And responding to legal ads on legal dating sites crosses the line.
"Once the low-hanging fruit is sort of gone, taken off the tree," Ryan said, "there's still pressure from high above to justify these actions."