"To Catch a Predator"

Topics: Civil Liberties
12 Sep 2009

From: Ervan Darnell

Recently, this show [1] has come up in conversation a couple of times.
I take it as proof I'm truly a libertarian and not a conservative as
some accuse. The premise is that an internet conversation about sex
with a putatively underage person followed by a visit is sufficient for
an arrest. There is of course no underage person, no sex act of any
kind, nor any opportunity for the accused to even check the age of the
hypothetical victim. Even worse, the internet is notorious for people
telling stories. People lie about their age all of the time on the
internet. Indeed, in this very case, the hypothetical victim is lying
about their age. It seems a perfectly sensible defense to say "I
thought the other person was lying about their age as part of creating a
fantasy", because indeed they were! There is no external evidence of age.

This is a pure thought crime when the thought was only about a fantasy
and not a real crime in any case. It's worse than entrapment. Not only
is the crime being created, it's not even a real crime being created.

Sure, any sensible person should smell entrapment a mile away on any
such ad. But that's a crime of stupidity, not sex with a minor.

I think of a presentation I saw at "Perverts Put Out" in San Francisco.
One (adult) woman was talking about her fantasy of having her father
enter her bedroom as a teenager and having sex with her. She looked for
boyfriends willing to play into that fantasy role. Disturbing, a bit.
Illegal? I would hope not. We're talking about consenting adults
engaging in fantasy. Had she put that fantasy on the internet it would
suddenly become illegal. Does that make any sense?

A weak analogy: a Craigslist ad says "420 @ 4:20, email for address" Do
you believe them? Are you legally obligated to believe they are telling
the truth? Maybe it's just a come-on for a legal head shop. You go to
the address and are arrested. There is no marijuana, there never was.
Absent any actual marijuana or any attempt to smoke any, just exactly
which words are a crime to act on, regardless of veracity, and which are

An analogy at the other extreme: an ad says "Come to a meeting of the
radical Democrats to get your plutonium and learn how to make a bomb."
You go out of curiosity. You wonder what they are really doing. The
chance they are telling the truth is low. Is that a crime? If they
really have plutonium or you receive any, there is a problem. Such an
ad is cause for investigation too, for sure. But is your responding to
it a crime?

Do we have to wait until a minor engages in sex (and this is about 17
year olds, not children)? Not necessarily. The person at the address
could be a minor (with all of the usual hidden cameras). If the
would-be perp then starts to take action, stop it. Perhaps even absent
such a minor, there is probable cause for a search of email for other
such conversations (and just for that).

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Catch_a_Predator