|Operation Home Alone|
By Noah Pransky
PINELLAS COUNTY - A document obtained by 10 News indicates law enforcement may have crossed the line when trying to round up alleged sexual predators over the weekend -- and defense attorneys say entrapment cases could be built around the evidence.
The multi-agency sting, led by the Pinellas Co. Sheriff's Office and Clearwater Police Department, netted 35 arrests in "Operation Home Alone." The effort was coordinated by the region's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force.
ICAC guidelines instruct undercover officers to "allow the investigative target to set the tone, pace, and subject matter of the online conversation."
But a Florida man, who says he responded to the officers' Craigslist ad, sent 10 News an alleged e-mail chain that indicates law enforcement is willing to bend, or break, their own ICAC guidelines to get "targets" to talk about sex with children.
In the exchange, an officer posing as a 12-year-old girl repeatedly engaged the man, who indicated she was too young to be on Craigslist. The topic of sex was also first introduced by the officer, an apparent violation of ICAC guidelines.
"There's no question they blur the lines," said defense attorney Jeffrey Brown of law enforcement officers. "But I think they can blur the lines because the ultimate resolution for a defense attorney is to go to trial."
And Brown said juries seldom have sympathy for accused predators, no matter what means were used to obtain evidence. He also said bending ICAC rules isn't necessarily breaking the law.
Brown added that the officers gave defense attorneys another possible entrapment argument by posting "casual encounters" ads on adult websites and only later suggesting they were 14 or younger.
Pinellas Co. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who was at the forefront of the Monday press conference announcing the 35 arrests, didn't make himself available to 10 Investigates for this story. But an agency spokesperson said they were reviewing the document provided by 10 Investigates.
"We are confident it was done within the process of the law and within all legal boundaries," said Pinellas Co. Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda.