Computer Sting Operations

Florida law, specifically state statute 847.0135, prohibits people from using the Internet or an electronic device to solicit, entice, or lure a child into engaging in the unlawful sexual conduct. If convicted of this offense, defendants face up to five years in prison. However, if the defendant actually took steps to meet the child in person after soliciting him or her online, the offender’s charges will be increased to a second-degree felony, which comes with the more severe penalty of 15 years in prison. In an effort to intercept these individuals before they actually meet up with a child, state and federal investigators often set up sting operations wherein they pose as a child or the parent of a child. Florida law does not allow defendants to argue their innocence based on the fact that an undercover operative was involved in the detection of their offense. However, in some cases, defendants can raise the defense of entrapment.

The Bait and Switch Technique

One of the routines that is often used in sting operations is known as “the bait and switch technique.” In these scenarios, the undercover agent initiates contact with someone and proposes engaging in legal sexual behavior. For example, the ploy may involve an unmarried mother looking to meet an adult male who is interested in having sexual relations. However, once the conversation has been initiated, the agent redirects the discussion from legal sexual conduct to unlawful sexual activity with the “mother’s” minor child. In many situations, the offender participates in the conversation and agrees to meet up at a later date. In other scenarios, the law enforcement agents may post fictitious ads or profiles on social media platforms, cell phone applications, and websites, while posing as minors or their guardians. Once people respond, the agents begin conversing via chat room, email, or text message with the offender until the person proposes a meeting. Often, these conversations result in multiple charges in addition to online solicitation, including:
  • Traveling to meet a minor
  • Transmitting harmful material to a minor
  • Promoting a sexual performance by a minor
  • Attempted lewd battery
  • Possession of child pornography
  • Soliciting prostitution
These charges range from misdemeanors to felonies and when combined, could result in decades-long prison sentences. Furthermore, those who are convicted will be required to register as sex offenders.

What Qualifies as Entrapment?

While these techniques are legal, there are limits to how much agents can push offenders before they cross over the line into entrapment. For instance, undercover officers may continually attempt to steer the conversation to sexual topics or may provide vague information that made the offender believe that he or she was actually communicating with an adult. Alternatively, the officer could be primarily responsible for suggesting that the parties meet up. In these situations, defendants may be able to raise the defense of entrapment, which occurs when a government agent induces another person to commit a crime that that individual would not have otherwise been predisposed to commit. Whether this defense is appropriate will depend on whether the defendant can show that he or she was not predisposed to commit a solicitation offense, which will, in turn, require an analysis of:
  • Who initiated the discussions between the defendant and the minor
  • The level of persistence demonstrated by law enforcement agents to commit the unlawful acts
  • Whether there are documented instances demonstrating the defendant’s reluctance to commit the sexual acts with the minor
  • The defendant’s expressed sexual interests
If based on an analysis of these factors, a court determines that a person was not predisposed to commit this type of offense, the defendant’s charges may be reduced or dismissed entirely. However, sting operations are generally conducted by professionals who are required to adhere to a strict protocol. For this reason, it is often difficult to establish a defense of entrapment in solicitation trials.

Solicitation of Prostitution

While the number of computer sting operations involving solicitation of a minor is at an all-time high, they are not the only types of undercover online sex crimes operations. Investigators also pose as adults willing to engage in prostitution, which is illegal in all states except for Nevada. Solicitation of prostitution does not require a completed sexual act, as a mere agreement to complete a sexual act in exchange for money is enough to support a charge. Although soliciting a prostitute is considered a misdemeanor offense in Florida, it can still mean jail time. In fact, multiple arrests for solicitation can even lead to felony charges.
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