You may have noticed that the relatively benign Entertainment-Masquerading-as-News vehicle "Dateline NBC" has recently morphed into the ubiquitous "To Catch a Predator." What initially appeared to be an ostensible (if voyeuristically creepy) public service, is now an ubiquitous ratings cash-cow franchise for NBC.
Last month, the Arizona Supreme Court issued an opinion that now casts the whole public service thing into doubt. The facts of Mejak v. Granville are familiar:
In April 2003, a local television news reporter, pretending to be a thirteen-year-old girl, engaged in Internet "chat room" discussions as part of an investigation into how the Internet can be used to lure minors for sexual contact. The petitioner, Jeremy Mejak, chatted online with the reporter, believing her to be a thirteen-year-old girl; and arranged to meet her for purposes of engaging in sexual conduct. When Mejak arrived at the agreed-upon location, he was greeted by news cameras. The police were given videotapes of the confrontation and transcripts of the online conversations. A grand jury indicted Mejak for violating A.R .S. § 13-3554.
Yeah, Dateline appears to be late to the fishing-for-child-molesters game. But that's irrelevant.
What is relevant, is that Arizona law specifically provides who may conduct a sting operation(emphasis mine):
13-3554. Luring a minor for sexual exploitation; classification
A. A person commits luring a minor for sexual exploitation by offering or soliciting sexual conduct with another person knowing or having reason to know that the other person is a minor.
B. It is not a defense to a prosecution for a violation of this section that the other person was a peace officer posing as a minor.
Meaning that it is a defense if the other person is not a peace officer. (For you nonlawyers out there, the Cool Latin Legal Maxim for this is expressio unius est exclusio aterius: "the expression of one thing is the exclusion of the other.") The court went on to construe the section as a whole and found that the only other "lured" party that could subject a defendant to criminal liability is a minor.
The court then vacated the indictment against Mejak.
Oh, the court acknowledged that a defendant in circumstances such as this could still be charged with attempted luring of a minor. But attempt is a lesser felony carrying a lighter potential sentence.
And the defendant in this case was never charged with attempt.
So, back to the original premise: does this outcome (and the outcomes that would flow from similar laws which can undoubtedly be found in other jurisdictions) strip "To Catch a Predator" of its last redeeming quality (save for the smarmy "gotcha" entertainment factor)? Because if you've seen these shows, you'll notice that the type of people who tend to get nabbed for trying to hook up with kids on the internet tend to be unable to control their urges or learn from their previous experience - both personal and vicarious. I just don't think that these shows have much of a deterrent effect. Wouldn't law enforcement agencies be better off forming their own programs to do the exact same thing that Dateline is doing, but with the added benefit of being able to prosecute these vermin to the fullest extent?
Hell, if they videotaped the stings, the initiatives would pay for themselves tenfold.
UPDATE: Occam's Razor. I caught the first 10 minutes or so of TCAP last night. Apparently the local sheriff deputized the folks who were conducting the sting. They even had a cop participating in the bait chats. This, of course renders almost everything I wrote above nugatory (except for the creepy voyeurism thing). Forget I ever said it.