Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vanity Fair: Internet stings and "pre-crime" (and "entrapment"): users: watch out


This comment that I am about to make is a practical one, devoid or moralizing. And I add, these blog postings don’t purport to give legal advice (I’m not an attorney). But sometimes a pattern of law enforcement practice is so persistent that any journalist must take note and pass it along. I could put this on the Internet safety blog or even the main one, but it is closest to the problem of protecting minors, so I tucked it away here.

The “advice” is never to get into chats (or text message exchanges or anything similar) “of an explicit nature” with anyone purporting to be a minor, or (particularly now) claiming to have minor children who would welcome illegal behavior. As often as not, there is a police officer on the other end, posing as a minor or, as in a sensational story on p 244 of the December 2009 issue of (Conde Nast) Vanity Fair (it’s no “September Issue” this time) by veteran writer and editor Mark Bowden, link here. (By the way, I couldn't locate Bowden's Q&A online; if someone finds it, please post a comment.)

Online, the article has the column title “Minority Report” followed by a formal title “A Crime of Shadows”. (I played fair with this; I bought a hardcopy issue at 7-11 Monday.) What comes to mind immediately is Dateline’s notorious series with Chris Hansen and “Perverted Justice”; but here there are no amateurs on the other end; there was a suburban Philadelphia female police officer posing as a mother with two imaginary but “available” children.

Bowden mentions the Tom Cruise flick “Minority Report” (based on the Philip k. Dyck story), where the concept is to apprehend people during the phase of “pre-crime.” This is more a national security thing; ever since 9/11 we’ve had to deal with the idea that some acts are so catastrophic that the perpetrators must be apprehended before the fact; that sort of thinking certainly has come to apply to protecting our children (whatever you think of the morality; in Europe, after all, the “age of consent” is usually less than in most states in the U.S.; in California and many other states it is 18). Ironically, the Vanity Fair cover story, depicting the white-hot young manhood of British actor Robert Pattinson, visually underscores the arbitrary nature of our definition of adulthood (the brain, they say, isn't fully grown until 25).

Bowden also discusses that this is the ultimate gray area, of purpose, intentions, enticement, even “thoughtcrimes” (a term sometimes used in other contexts by gay journalist Randy Shilts). In the speech area as to web postings, the legal term is “implicit content”, mentioned in passing during the COPA trial. That is, postings that don’t seem to result in legitimate personal gain (such as monetary) for the speaker may evaluate legal assessment as to “purpose” in some cases. It’s a dangerous possibility. But here, Bowden is still focusing on the engaging with others in Internet chat, when those others might be police.

The story of what happened to “J” when he started conversing with police officer or employee Michele Deery, who drew him into the interest into the “imaginary” daughters, when “J” insists that it is her that he really “wanted.” Is this entrapment? The depiction of the parking lot arrest is brutal: but so far, most of these arrests happen only when the target goes to meet the imaginary child (in a few cases, the police have barged in while the presumed offender was online talking to decoys). The article goes on to reproduce a lot of the chat log. Toward the end of the article, Bowden writes “J was guilty of some things, serious things … He was guilty … of a lifelong inability to establish a healthy intimacy with a woman” (how many of us are “guilty” of that? – how about many gay men?) “He was guilty of lacking moral boundaries and good sense. There is a chance that without treatment of some kind J would have evolved into someone dangerous.” He will also be on a s.o. registry, possibly linked with other real offenders. He gave up his computer and joined a church, the article says.

At one time, I had no sympathy for men caught in these stings, but the overuse of these police tactics makes me wonder. The story of former weatherman Bill Kamal (known to the DC gay community in the 1990s) and what happened to him after his bust in Florida in 2004 is instructive; you can read about it in a 2005 Jacksonville newspaper article “Miami weatherman says he was framed by false claims”, link here. Read the article; he may have a point. But as far as we can tell, his life was ruined.

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