Internet Watchdogs

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

Ohio law includes a solicitation section, called importuning. The way the law reads, for importuning to occur in these cases, a law enforcement officer must pose as a juvenile in a sting operation. The law further limits importuning to that which occurs in a specific county. So for instance, Darke County lacks the authority to arrest someone for importuning, unless the solicitation took place within the county itself.

Darke County deputized three Perverted Justice volunteers to circumvent potential problems written into the importuning law. This decision allowed authorities to nab one individual for importuning. The man came from out of state to visit what he believed to be a 15-year-old boy. Police stopped him for driving the wrong way down a four-lane highway during the commute. Rattled, the suspect turned around to make his return back to Indianapolis. But before leaving the county, he phoned a deputized Perverted Justice volunteer to make another solicitation. The district attorney charged him with importuning, and that's what he pled guilty to, according to Howell. "Importuning is the same degree felony as Attempted Unlawful Conduct with a Minor, which is what he'd have been charged with if he'd arrived at the house," Howell adds.

The best defense is a good offense, says Bianco, who notes he paired closely with prosecuting attorney Michelle Paradise of the County of Riverside District Attorney's Office to address issues in advance. She reviewed entrapment concerns, jurisdictional issues, and laws pertaining to Internet cases. Teaming with the district attorney meant things were done right from the onset, eliminating court challenges later on.

It's everywhere
Perverted Justice's work remains mired in controversy as some law enforcement professionals debate the value of citizen sleuths. Experts question whether the organization consists of concerned citizens desiring to assist the criminal justice system or vigilantes subverting people's Constitutional rights. As a result, many departments hold skepticism about working with citizens in this way.

Harvey admits it's been an uphill battle for the organization to win law enforcement's trust. Officials initially questioned whether the organization's volunteers possessed the necessary background and experience to create prosecutable and winnable cases.

Today several hundred agencies, from local police to the Department of Homeland Security, have entered Information First agreements. The organization really gained ground after Dateline televised Perverted Justice's sting with the Riverside Sheriff's Department, says Harvey. The operation's 51 collars in three days shattered previous arrest records and made Perverted Justice a household name.

Even so, departments partnering with Perverted Justice have come under a storm of criticism. One law enforcement official blasted Bianco for not participating in a local Internet task force instead. After all, sworn law enforcement — not civilians — controlled this organization. Yet, when Bianco inquired about the task force's arrest numbers, he learned investigators had caught just four people in a year.

"Negative comments really bother me when they come from people within my own field," Burns adds. "None of us hesitate to draw information from a druggie out on the street or a convicted felon. But everyone wants to turn their heads when it comes to an agency that's really trying to help."

Teaming with private entities is the wave of the future, stresses Free. Police alliances with organizations like Perverted Justice mark the beginnings of a trend.

"We need to move forward rather than do things the way we've always done them," Bianco says. "You always have to be on the look out for progressive ways to handle problems."

However an agency decides to handle Internet predator investigations, one thing reigns true — these individuals will continue combing the Internet seeking unsuspecting victims and it's up to law enforcement to do something about it. Burns cautions his peers not to stick their heads in the sand and say, "It can't happen here."

In Darke County's Dateline sting one individual drove more than 100 miles to get to Greenville, Ohio. Perverted Justice contributors had been trying to nab this guy for more than three years. Yet, he chose this small Ohio town — population 13,294 — for a meeting.


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