By Mannix Porterfield
CHARLESTON - Beginning Wednesday (06/08/2011), sexual predators using the Internet to prey on unsuspecting minors, or to download child pornography, won't be able to use a fake name to shield themselves from police in West Virginia.
Under provisions of SB186 (PDF), law enforcement agencies will be able to use an administrative subpoena to get a real address and telephone number from an Internet provider or telephone company, cutting the time for tracking potential predators from days, or even weeks, to a matter of hours.
"We're on the eve of a powerful new tool for the State Police," said Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, one of the more outspoken advocates of the new law, which officially goes on the books Wednesday.
"This has been something we've been working for and fighting for now over a year and half. As a parent, as a lawmaker, you like being able to play a role in providing a tool, especially a tool that will protect our children."
In reaching those suspected of contacting minors on the Internet for a sexual rendezvous, police have been restrained by the time it takes to track them down through ordinary channels, since all they see is an online alias.
"They have been frustrated in the past with the slow process to be able to identify who these online predators are," Jenkins said.
"These predators are slick operators. They think they're anonymous, hiding behind their IP addresses, and the State Police have had a patchwork, literally, of 55 different county prosecutors and local court systems. There's not a one-stop shop and a standard format to be able to get the IP address identified."
The new law covers any law enforcement agency, and all will be using a standard subpoena form drafted by the West Virginia Supreme Court.
"Police believe this will improve their investigations," Jenkins said.
"It will speed them up. I've got to think it could save the life of a young child now that we are able to identify quicker than before who the online predator is."
Fourteen senators signed on as sponsors, among them Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a four-term sheriff in Fayette County, Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, and Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier.
With the current, slow process of hunting the suspected predators, Jenkins said it is conceivable that many are getting away their crimes.
"We would be naive to think that law enforcement is catching every predator," he said.
Jenkins once sat in on a sting operation run by State Police Sgt. Christopher Casto, head of the special Crimes Against Children Unit, and said he was aghast at the number of adults trying to set up a meeting with a child for sex.
- If you don't know their real names until you get IP information, etc, how do you know they are indeed adults?
"I'm a realist to recognize there's a lot of sick individuals we're not catching," he said.
Two key components are embedded in the law. One streamlines the process for getting real names and addresses. The other is the time element.
"Cutting the time to identify where these IP addresses are registered and in what name and what address can cut a process that sometimes takes weeks to now a process that can take potentially just hours is part of the magic to this," he said.
"And time can save a life."
Based on his observations at the sting operation, and his conversations with police, Jenkins suggested law enforcement agencies will have their hands full.
"Unfortunately, I think we are probably just getting the tip of the iceberg," he said.