TAMPA, Florida -- Following 10 Investigates' reports on problems with Central Florida's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force, the local chair of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling for a federal review.
Ret. Army Col. Mike Pheneger, the chair of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU, expressed concern Monday about how the "To Catch a Predator"-style stings, which remain as popular as ever in West/Central Florida.
"The Justice Department (should) be asked to look into this, since this is federal money that's involved here," said Pheneger, who has also held ACLU leadership positions at the state and national level. "Find out if they are following the rules, because it would appear they are not."
10 Investigates showed how the Central Florida ICAC task force, under the watch of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, started reaching out to men who simply posted legal ads on legal dating sites. And a number of judges had criticized officers' overreach, their "failing to follow procedures" during sting operations, as well as methods to provoke "a law-abiding citizen to commit a crime."
A 10 Investigates analysis of more than 1,200 Florida arrests since 2008 shows the subjects of the stings often had no previous record and were able to avoid jail time. Many prosecutors have shown leniency, based on the facts of the case and the likelihood the defendant might actually commit a crime on a real child.
A local branch of the ACLU wants a federal review of the sex stings in Polk County.
"It's important to put actual sex offenders in jail," Pheneger said. "Law enforcement should be going after those people, not trying to entice people who have shown no disposition to any kind of criminal behavior toward children."
Some local agencies, such as the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, do not take part in the stings, instead focusing cyber crime detectives on more immediate dangers such as child porn and sex trafficking.
ICAC guidelines, obtained by 10 Investigates through court records, indicate 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.
ICAC guidelines also require law enforcement to determine if there is reasonable cause to investigate each potential target. But Judd told 10 News he would not turn over public records on the sting because every single person his task force came in contact with -- including those who showed absolutely no interest in the underage decoys -- was still "under investigation."
If Judd is investigating hundreds of men who showed no interest in breaking the law and provided law enforcement no "reasonable cause" to be investigated, Pheneger said it would be a clear violation of civil liberties.
"The ACLU believes in public records," Pheneger said. "We believe public records in the Sunshine is one of the most important things you can do in government. When people like Sheriff Judd appear to be going off the reservation, public records laws are the best ways to...find out how far off they've gone and to...make sure they don't continue to do it."
Pheneger also expressed disappointment that Judd told 10 Investigates last week that he had no remorse about holding a press conference to call men "sexual predators" who had already been cleared of wrongdoing.
"That's reprehensible in any respect. His job is to enforce the law, not to basically ruin the lives of people who got involved in this through enticement, not through any criminal intent," Pheneger said.
Judd and other local law enforcement agencies have a lot to lose if public records show widespread disregard for the rules - millions of dollars in federal grants could be in jeopardy if there are ICAC violations.