Recently, there has been a spate of arrests involving online solicitation of a minor.
Typically, a police task force, which can be composed of federal and state law enforcement, works in conjunction with prosecutors. They devise a plan for an undercover sting operation.
The undercover operation typically includes assigning an undercover officer—usually a woman—who poses as a minor. She surfs want ads on various websites such as Craigslist or Backpage, and sends an email. She claims she is a minor and interested in sex.
Having handled many of these cases, I have learned that men who respond to these ads often do not believe the alleged minor is really a minor. They believe she is an adult posing as a minor and is interested in “age play.” Her writing style and vocabulary are beyond the age of the person she claims to be. Upon request, she sends photos to some of these men, and she looks like she is at least 18 years old. When she talks to some of them on the phone, she does not sound like a minor.
“Age play”, which can be sexual or non-sexual, is a form of roleplaying in which an individual acts or treats another as if they were a different age. Sexual age play does not mean that a person is sexually attracted to biologically underage people. Rather, when a consenting adult takes on the roleplaying mindset of a younger person, such as a teenager, it is motivated by a desire to re-experience emotional states and social interactions of one’s youth, which also happen to be pleasurable in a sexual context to the participants.
The alleged minor in the sting operation asks the men to go to her apartment for sex. She asks many of them to bring alcohol, condoms, and even sex toys. The unwitting men go to the apartment and are arrested as they get out of their cars.
These men are charged with online solicitation of a minor. If they bring alcohol or condoms or sex toys, they are also often charged with attempted sex assault of a child. They are arrested and booked, and their bonds are often very high.
The folks charged with online solicitation are mostly good people in a bad situation. Many are professionals, most have no prior criminal history, and some are not born in the United States and have language difficulties (which often explains how they ended up misunderstanding the alleged minor and getting arrested). They are upstanding citizens who would have never been arrested had they not fallen into a misleading and deceitful honey trap. They have no interest in, and no prior incidents involving, sexually abusing real minors.
So what happens after they are arrested? The law enforcement operation goes into “shaming mode.” Police and prosecutors hold press conferences, display a poster with mug shots of the defendants, and talk about how they are protecting innocent children from child molesters.
Under the ruse of public service, these officials are really campaigning for votes in the next election. For its part, the media—more interested in salacious than serious reporting—happily provides the forum for these elected officials. No one even bothers mentioning that the defendant is presumed innocent.
And the defendant, before he knows, is immediately presumed guilty in the public eye, sometimes before he makes his first court appearance. Many times he’s fired from his job. His friends don’t come around anymore. His family may leave him. And alone, with no one to turn to and struggling to pay rent or an attorney, he may have a breakdown or seriously ponder suicide.
Is that how a civilized country should handle these cases?