Internet Watchdogs

Law enforcers go online with citizen sleuths to bring Internet predators to justice

Like the government's system of checks and balances, Perverted Justice builds safeguards into its organization. Volunteers log in through a proxy server, which masks their IP. Technology double records every conversation with a prospective predator. When a contributor logs onto Yahoo, their chats are automatically recorded in an MD5 hash on their computer as well as on a secure server in another state. In essence, every keystroke is captured on two different computers, and because it's MD5 hash, any tampering would render the file unreadable. Contributors capture Web cam images to preserve a record of what transpired. Using underage-sounding phone verifiers, who actually talk to the suspect, produces two people able to testify to the intent of the person being charged.

"Volunteers literally cannot make a move without us seeing what they are doing," Harvey explains. "Everything is watched. We're very Big Brother-esque."

Contributors remain available for court testimony later on. "Sometimes people get involved during a sting operation, and you never hear from them again," says Richard Howell, Darke County prosecuting attorney. "But if a case goes to trial, it's necessary for them to be available to testify. I never had a problem with Perverted Justice volunteers. The few that we had come back for a trial came off very credible, and from the jurors' quick conviction, they thought so too."

But isn't it entrapment?
By definition entrapment doesn't apply, Harvey explains. Entrapment is a legal defense by which a defendant may argue that he should not be held criminally liable for actions that broke the law because he was induced (entrapped) by police to commit them.

Even so, Perverted Justice plunks precautions in place to thwart the entrapment issue. Volunteers never initiate contact with the person; all communication begins with the offender. Later, contributors never instigate lewd conversations or talks of sexual meetings.

"When you apply these three aspects, it's hard to talk entrapment," Harvey points out. "You didn't bring up sex or a meeting, but you entrapped them?"

Beyond that, volunteers refrain from sexual discussions before confirming the person's age. Contributors inspect Yahoo profiles, which state age; run the chat name through MySpace; and so on to verify the person is more than 18 years old before participating in explicit discussions.

During the Riverside sting, contributors kept profiles to 12- or 13 years of age; once a person turns 14 it becomes a lesser crime under California law. Chatters also never initiated contact or sexual discussions. They even refrained from profanity. The volunteers played naive little kids who were swiftly taken advantage of. "It's ridiculous how quickly it went from 'Hi' to 'Do you want to have sex?'" says Bianco, who still works for the Riverside Sheriff's Department but is presently assigned to the Moreno Valley Police Department, a contract city.

Though defendants raised the entrapment issue in Riverside, a judge's ruling later threw it out. The judge ruled it differs from a police officer presenting a handful of drugs to a subject and asking if he wants to buy some. In this scenario, the person's being invited to make a snap decision. In contrast, driving to a meeting location afforded these Internet offenders plenty of time to change their minds.

Addressing court challenges
Ironically, entrapment wasn't the primary legal challenge faced by departments teaming with Perverted Justice.

Telecommunications/wiretap issues arose both in California and Ohio. Defense attorneys challenged the departments received phone call recordings and printed chat logs illegally. Exhibiting the prior agreements made with Perverted Justice mitigated these disputes. In these partnerships, contributors voluntarily released the data, overriding wiretapping concerns.

A judge also dismissed motions to throw out indictments against seven of the 18 men arrested in the Ohio sex sting. To date, 16 have pled guilty and two were convicted at trial. Defense attorneys contended the sting violated state law because of Dateline's involvement with Perverted Justice and petitioned to have related videos, statements and photos suppressed. A judge ruled against the potential conflict of interest, noting department officials had partnered with Perverted Justice and were unaware NBC had paid the organization for consultation services.

The department kept itself separate from Dateline staff during the sting as well, to avoid legal hassles later on, says Burns. Officials were positioned in a location near but not inside the house where offenders arrived for meetings. Communications and video equipment permitted authorities to keep tabs on what transpired, and all chats were transmitted directly to officials as they took place. "We didn't want to blur the line of ethics between law enforcement and the media," Burns explains. "We didn't even speak to Dateline officials during the operations."

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