ACLU Leader Requests Federal Review of Polk County Undercover Child-Sex Sting Operations

The chair of the Greater Tampa Chapter of American Civil Liberties Union Ret. Army Col. Mike Pheneger is calling for a federal review of Central Florida’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force regarding their popular and ever present undercover sex sting operations targeting alleged sexual predators.

Pheneger claims there are many problems with these “To Catch a Predator”-style sex stings in West/Central Florida.

Pheneger, who has also held ACLU leadership positions at the state and national level, argued that the Justice Department should review these stings since they involve federal money. He believes that the rules are not being followed properly in these undercover operations.

The Central Florida ICAC task force, under the eye of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, started targeting men who were simply posting very legal ads on legitimate dating websites. There have been many judges that have criticized officers’ overreach, their “failing to follow procedures” during these stings, as well as methods used to entice “a law-abiding citizen to commit a crime.”

According to a 10 Investigates analysis, out of more than 1,200 Florida arrests since 2008, most of the subjects of these stings had no previous criminal record and were able to avoid jail time. Moreover, many prosecutors have shown leniency just due to the facts of these cases and the extreme unlikelihood that those accused might actually commit a crime on a real child.

“It’s important to put actual sex offenders in jail,” Pheneger said. “Law enforcement should be going after those people, not trying to entice people who have shown no disposition to any kind of criminal behavior toward children.”

Other local agencies, such as the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, choose to avoid these types of cyber stings. Instead, they focus their efforts and resources on more pressing Internet crimes, such as child porn and sex trafficking.

ICAC guidelines were obtained by 10 Investigates through court records, and clearly show that these online undercover stings, which usually don’t involve real children or victims, are not even specified in the list of priorities agencies are supposed to use to target suspected predators. The guidelines are listed below:

  1. A child is at immediate risk of victimization.
  2. A child is vulnerable to victimization by a known offender.
  3. A known suspect is aggressively soliciting a child(ren).
  4. Manufacturers, distributors or possessors of images that appear to be home photography with domiciled children.
  5. Aggressive, high-volume child pornography manufacturers or distributors who either are commercial distributors, repeat offenders, or specialize in sadistic images.
  6. Manufacturers, distributors, or solicitors involved in high-volume trafficking or belong to an organized child pornography ring that operates as a criminal conspiracy.
  7. Distributors, solicitors and possessors of images of child pornography.
  8. Any other form of child victimization.

ICAC guidelines also make it necessary for law enforcement to demonstrate that there is reasonable cause to investigate every possible suspect. However, Judd said he would not release public records on the undercover sex stings because every single person his task force has engaged with, even those who showed absolutely no interest in the underage decoys, was still “under investigation.”

Pheneger said it would be a clear violation of civil liberties if Judd was investigating men who exhibited no signs of breaking the law as there is no “reasonable cause” for them to waste resources on doing so.

Judd told 10 Investigates just last week that he had no remorse about holding a press conference to call men “sexual predators” who had been cleared of wrongdoing.

Judd, along with other local law enforcement agencies, could stand to lose millions of dollars in federal grants if there any ICAC violations are uncovered.

It will be interesting to see if these undercover operations are reviewed and how that will affect the outcome of these cases, as well as how future stings are conducted.

Sexual predator sting operations can often be viewed as essentially a “witch hunt” by police to manipulate individuals through online chat rooms, social media sites or email. Officers are trained to take innocent statements and twist them into looking like sexually overt conversations. And, in many circumstances, police are overzealous when it comes to handling these investigations, which can lead to evidence of improper conduct. When such evidence exists, a Florida Sex Crimes Defense Lawyer at Whittel & Melton can have the charges against you thrown out or at least show the flaws in the prosecution’s case.

If you or someone you love has been caught in the center of an undercover Internet sex sting, there are possible defense options depending on your situation. A Florida Sex Crimes Attorney at Whittel & Melton can review your case for free and make sure you understand exactly what you are up against. Call us today statewide and toll-free at 866-608-5529 or contact us online.