After a year-long investigation, WTSP, a CBS affiliate in Tampa Bay, Florida, has uncovered an alarming pattern of police trying to entrap innocent adults in sex crimes. The stings follow the basic pattern familiar to anyone who has seen To Catch a Predator, except "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."
"Sometimes, the officers would act as an interested adult with a teenage 'sister' who was also interested. Even though many of the men had no interest in the underage decoys, if they traveled to meet the adult, they were arrested as a 'sexual predator' and charged with 'traveling to meet a minor.'"
"In the case of a 27-year-old Cape Coral man ... deputies arrested him even though he didn't even travel to meet a child for sex. Law enforcement officers responded to the man's legal 'casual encounters' Craigslist ad, pretending to be a 14-year-old girl, even though the ad said, 'age for all women must be 18+ no one under email me plz.' The man repeatedly told the undercover detectives that he was 'not OK' with meeting up with an underage girl, but because he didn't immediately end the conversation, he was arrested for utilizing his phone to solicit a sexual act from a child. Detectives went to his house and arrested him as a sexual predator of children."
A 21-year-old "responded to a DateHookup.com ad posted of an 18-year-old woman. The officer ... started exchanging messages with the man when he asked her to a movie. The officer wrote, 'are you Ok with me being under 18?' The 21-year-old continued the conversation. Following more exchanged messages and texts, the detective later added that 'she' was about to turn 16, the age of consent in Florida. As the two continued to swap texts, the man said 'I don't want to have sex, is that OK?' But the detective, who repeatedly rejected the man's interest in a possible relationship, kept pushing sex and threatened to call off their meeting. When the man finally indicated he would have sex, police had enough to charge him ... "
One incentive was the availability of federal funds earmarked for sex predator stings. Another factor: asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize the property of people who are arrested even if they aren't convicted.
"Florida's Contraband Forfeiture Act made it easy for agencies to seize property as their own from anyone accused of committing a felony—even if charges are ultimately never filed," 10News reports. "Sex stings have become especially rich sources for seizures, since almost every man arrested is accused of traveling to seduce, solicit, or entice a child to commit a sexual act … even though no real children are ever involved ... However, the accusations are felonies, meaning law enforcement can seize suspect's vehicles, making it extremely difficult for them to ever get them back without paying thousands of dollars—or more—in cash to the arresting agency."