by Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
A Pennsylvania lawmaker said he wants to make it legal for anyone to go undercover posing as a minor online to help law enforcement arrest sexual predators.
Citing the long-since canceled hidden camera reality TV show “To Catch a Predator” as evidence that online child predation is a significant problem, state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, said law enforcement officials are often unable to devote the time or resources necessary to catch “the multitude of predators who prowl the internet for vulnerable children.”
“By allowing any individual to pose as a minor for the purpose of enforcing the unlawful contact with a minor statute, these predators may be less likely to target and prey on children,” Gregory said in a memo seeking co-sponsors for the proposed bill.
How such a law would be implemented was not immediately clear, and Gregory’s legislation didn’t address the possible problems of people being misidentified in civilian-organized “sting” operations.
Greg Rowe, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the group has not seen any legislation on the subject and has not taken a position.
“As a general matter, however, we do believe that undercover operations designed to catch child sexual predators should be led by law enforcement,” Rowe said.
In recent years, individuals and groups across the country have taken the law into their own hands, setting up stings for people looking for sexual encounters with children.
They pose as children using dating apps and then confront the would-be perpetrators when they arrive at an agreed-upon location. They often post videos of the confrontations and identifying details, such as license plate numbers online.
The Dateline NBC program “To Catch a Predator” partnered with the watchdog group Perverted Justice to carry out sting operations that were televised. The show drew criticism about the ethics of its methods and whether what it was doing amounted to possible entrapment, after it began working with police.
“To Catch a Predator” was canceled in 2008 despite strong ratings, following an incident in Rockwall County, Texas. Louis Conradt Jr., an assistant district attorney, died by suicide after police and an NBC camera crew conducting a sting for the show broke into his home.
NBC settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount with Conradt’s sister who sought $109 million from the network, which she blamed for his death.
A court ruling last month in Clearfield County says that under the current language of the Unlawful Contact with Minors statute, a person violates the law only if they make contact with an actual minor or a law enforcement officer posing as a minor for the purpose of committing a sex-related offense.
Gregory’s bill, which he said already has been cosponsored by Rep. Jim Haddock, D-Luzerne, and Liz Hanbidge, D-Montgomery, would eliminate the requirement for the person posing as a minor victim to be a law enforcement officer.
Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks has faced intense criticism for his decision not to prosecute on the basis of amateur undercover stings alone, Gregory said. Weeks told Altoona’s WTAJ-TV that his office was doing independent investigations to ensure prosecutors had the degree of proof to get convictions.
The bill was drafted in consultation with the Blair County District Attorney’s Office, said Gregory, who has been a champion of sexual abuse survivors. Gregory co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to give victims a two-year window in which to file lawsuits against abusers for claims that would otherwise be too old to take to court.
Gregory, who worked in local television before he was elected to office, according to his website bio, said the proliferation of groups like the 814 Pred Hunters and the Luzerne County Predator Catcher reflect a larger frustration, as police departments and district attorneys’ offices deal with what he called a workforce shortage.
When Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed a $2,500 tax credit to incentivize young people to consider law enforcement and other critical professions as part of his budget proposal in March, he cited more than 1,200 open police positions across the state.
“They are seeing it. They are experiencing it with their own families and they are filling the vacuum out of frustration,” Gregory said.
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