|Sheriff Grady Judd|
By Noah Pransky
This is the first of a two-part series examining how law enforcement is blurring the lines on due process.
POLK COUNTY - In the decade since Chris Hansen and "To Catch a Predator" popularized Internet sex stings, more than 1,200 men in Florida alone have been arrested, accused of preying on underage teens and children for sex.
But as the stings put more and more men behind bars, detectives are working harder and harder to keep up their arrest numbers. And the tactics they're using to put alleged sexual offenders in jail are sweeping up large numbers of law-abiding men, too.
A yearlong investigation by 10 Investigates reveals many of the men whose mugshots have been paraded out by local sheriffs in made-for-TV press conferences were not seeking to meet children online. Instead, they were minding their own business, looking for other adults, when detectives started to groom and convince them to break the law.
While detectives used to post ads suggesting an underage teen or child was available for sex, they now routinely post more innocuous personal ads of adults on traditional dating sites. When men – many of them under 25 with no criminal history - respond, officers switch the bait and typically indicate their age is really 14 or 15 years old. However, sometimes the storyline isn't switched until the men, who were looking for legal love, already start falling for the undercover agent.
According to arrest affidavits inspected by 10 Investigates, law enforcement is also now routinely making first contact with men who have done nothing wrong, responding to their ads on dating sites like PlentyOfFish.com. After men start conversing with what they think are adults, officers change the age they claim to be, but try to convince the men to continue the conversation anyway.
Other examples include undercover officers showing interest in a man, then later introducing the idea of having sex with the undercover's "child." If the men indicate they weren't interested, they were still often arrested for just talking to the adult.
Critics of the stings, including a number of prominent Tampa Bay law enforcement leaders, tell 10 News the operations make for better press conferences than they do crime fighting. Many of the men who are arrested for sexual predator crimes see little jail time.
But Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, when asked about over-aggressive detectives, instead went on the offensive: "The concern (I have) is that you inflate your investigative reporting to make it glitzy."