Traveling to Meet a Minor or Seduction of a Child Using Internet
Pinellas / Clearwater / St. Petersburg Defense Lawyers
The criminal charges of Traveling to Meet a Minor in Florida or Seduction of a Child Using the Internet typically involve highly motivated and extremely aggressive police officers who misrepresent themselves as underage children. Sometimes, the undercover officer will pose on the internet as the parent or guardian of an underage child. The officers will attempt to snare unsuspecting individuals for the following criminal offenses (sometimes vaguely worded as “Certain Use of Computer Services Prohibited”):
- Traveling to Meet a Minor, Fla. Stat. 847.0135(4)(a)
- Seduction of a Child Using Internet, Fla. Stat. 847.0135(3)(a)
- Solicitation of a Child (Parent or Guardian) Using Internet, Fla. Stat. 847.0135(3)(b)
- Possession of Child Pornography/Sexual Performance, Fla. Stat. 827.071(5)(a)
- Transmission of Child Pornography, Fla. Stat. 847.0137
- Transmitting Harmful Material to a Minor, Fla. Stat. 847.0138
- Certain Use of Computer Prohibited, Fla. Stat. 847.0135(5)(a)2
There is no doubt that the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is devoted to carrying out regular and systematic “Catch a Predator” Online sex stings. We question whether their over-zealous sting operations coupled with the lack of experienced and properly trained officers could lead to flawed investigations. Given the sheer number of simultaneous online communications handled by an undercover officer, these stings seem likely to produce unduly suggestive conversations, ambiguous verbal statements, and a general sense that law enforcement was “making it up as they went along.”
Common Internet Locations of Sex Sting Operations
The Offense of Traveling to Meet a Minor
What the Prosecution Must Prove
Former State Prosecutors with Valuable Insight
Possible Defenses to Traveling to Meet a Minor
Penalties for Traveling to Meet a Minor
Avoiding State Prison
Common Online Destinations for Internet Sex Sting Operations
Law enforcement has been known to utilize any number of different methods of online communication in carrying out their “sting” operations. This includes:
- Internet chat rooms
- Social networking sites
- Craig’s List
- Text Messaging or
- Various Publications such as Backpage
The Offense of Traveling to Meet a Minor in Florida
Internet solicitation of a minor for sex is commonly charged in conjunction with the offense of “Traveling to Meet a Minor” found in Florida Statute section 847.0135(4)(b). In many scenarios, the internet solicitation charge is used to prosecute the written communication that led up to an arrangement to meet the purported minor in person for sex. The “traveling” charge is then used to prosecute the act of actually going from one place to another in order to attempt to accomplish face-to-face contact for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity with the minor.
The Prosecutor Must Prove that the Traveling was for the Purpose of Sex with a Minor
Florida Statutes Section 847.0135(4)(a) lays out the elements that the State must prove when attempting to secure a conviction for this offense:
(4) TRAVELING TO MEET A MINOR.—Any person who travels any distance either within this state, to this state, or from this state by any means, who attempts to do so, or who causes another to do so or to attempt to do so for the purpose of engaging in any illegal act described in chapter 794, chapter 800, or chapter 827, or to otherwise engage in other unlawful sexual conduct with a child or with another person believed by the person to be a child after using a computer online service, Internet service, local bulletin board service, or any other device capable of electronic data storage or transmission to:
(a) Seduce, solicit, lure, or entice or attempt to seduce, solicit, lure, or entice a child or another person believed by the person to be a child, to engage in any illegal act described in chapter 794, chapter 800, or chapter 827, or to otherwise engage in other unlawful sexual conduct with a child; or
(b) Solicit, lure, or entice or attempt to solicit, lure, or entice a parent, legal guardian, or custodian of a child or a person believed to be a parent, legal guardian, or custodian of a child to consent to the participation of such child in any act described in chapter 794, chapter 800, or chapter 827, or to otherwise engage in any sexual conduct, commits a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
A plain reading of the statute reveals two important points. First, the traveling must be for the purposes of engaging in sexual activity with a child. It is simply insufficient for the State to prove that you were apprehended arriving to meet a minor. Therefore, under Florida law, if the communication established a desire to meet for the purpose of social interaction, enjoyment of a recreational activity, or for another lawful purpose that was non-sexual in nature, your “traveling” would not violate this criminal statute. Secondly, there must actually be “seduction,” i.e., an attempt to convince or otherwise persuade the “victim” to engage in sexual conduct. Thus, in the most basic form, an individual who simply accepts an offer of sex with a minor from an undercover police officer over the internet might not be guilty of “traveling to meet a minor” for sexual activity.
Former Prosecutors with Valuable Insight on Aggressive Police Tactics
Our team of former state prosecutors is well familiar with the tactics used by police officers in Florida Traveling to Meet a Minor cases. The police will often use suggestive language that causes our clients to make unguarded or incriminatory remarks online. We learned our craft from the inside and know that these “sting” operations can cause individuals to make unintended responses or take never before considered action.
Some important questions to consider when evaluating law enforcement’s tactics in your case:
- Did the police use or misuse language and semantics to fool you?
- Did the police deliberately use words when communicating with you that could have a double meaning?
- Did the police intentionally “overlap conversations” or engage in “rapid-fire repartee” that was designed to make it seem as if one or more of your responses applied to a different subject matter or topic?
- Did the police take innocuous or harmless words used by you and assign them an incriminating meaning?
We Understand Your Apprehension, Anxiety & Stress
Many of our clients who are charged with Traveling to Meet a Minor or Internet Seduction of a Child in Pinellas County have never previously been arrested or they have had limited exposure to the criminal justice system. We recognize that you are going through a very difficult time. We are also understanding of the pressures you face, since your family is likely in a state of disbelief and shock. For these reasons, every effort is made on our part to reduce your nervousness and distress. This does not mean that we are going to “tell you what you want to hear.” Rather, it means:
- That our depth of experience in this area of the law and zealous representation will become quickly apparent to you. That, in and of itself, can often have a comforting affect;
- We take pride in our policy of employing “open communication” with our clients. The nature and purpose of your court appearances, legal terminology and defenses are carefully explained and shared. Our clients are never “left in the dark.” To the contrary, we value our client’s input and welcome their participation in every juncture of their case.
- Working closely with your lawyer and being timely informed of developments in your case can provide you with an extra measure of assurance that everything possible is being done to achieve the best possible outcome;
- Protecting your privacy by taking the appropriate steps to keep your home address, occupation, marital status, and other personal information confidential and out of public view; and
- Counseling you on steps you can take to limit or avoid post-arrest publicity.
Possible Defenses to Traveling to Meet a Minor or Internet Seduction of a Child
Your Lack of Criminal Intent to Commit the Crime
A criminal conviction requires proof of “criminal intent,” or what is known in the law as “mens rea.” It is insufficient that an individual inadvertently or negligently acted in a certain manner. To be guilty of a criminal offense requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you “intended” to violate the law.
The Entrapment Defense
Entrapment takes place when a law enforcement officer induces you to commit a crime that you are not otherwise predisposed to commit. Keep in mind, that it is not typically the inducement by the police that draws scrutiny. Rather, it is your “predisposition” that becomes the issue. In this regard, we will need to carefully examine evidence, including, but not limited to:
- Who initiated conversations about sexual topics or sexual activity;
- Whether you ever openly expressed reluctance on your part to engage in explicit discussions;
- The length of time that you were engaged with the undercover officer in an online interaction;
- The depth of the on-line messages that were exchanged between you and the undercover officer;
- The extent that the undercover police officer persisted in inducing or encouraging communication of a sexual nature;
- Whether your travel to the area was immediate or incidental to a business trip, vacation, or other planned travel.
If the Pinellas County State Attorney’s Office charges you with “Traveling to Meet a Minor” as well as “Solicitation of a Child,” it may be possible to have one of the charges dismissed on double jeopardy grounds. The constitutional protection against being punished twice for the same conduct bars the prosecutor from proceeding on both a solicitation charge and a traveling charge, if the communication and the traveling occurred within a relatively short period of time. We can file a “Motion to Dismiss” based on the recent case of Hartley v. State, 4D12-2486 (Fla. 4th DCA January 8, 2014). Such a motion could substantially reduce your exposure to penalties under the Florida Criminal Punishment Code.
Challenging the Origin, Reliability & Admissibly of Online Messages
The lack of forensic computer evidence can sometimes present a barrier to a successful prosecution. It is our job to examine the lawfulness of the seizure of any computer or electronic mobile device. We may also decide to implement a strategy in your case to challenge the admissibility of evidence that is in the form of electronic data.
The increasing use of mobile devices can complicate law enforcement’s gathering, preservation and interpretation of this evidence. File systems in mobile devices can contain volatile memory or data that is subject to loss upon power failure. The diverse variety of operating systems and quick product cycle changes can also make it difficult for law enforcement to keep up with newly developed technologies. Finally, the State may have great difficulty in establishing that the accused actually sent the messages that the State claim violate the law. This argument can be particularly persuasive if the messages were sent from a public computer (such as in a library, university, or internet cafe), a computer connected to an unsecured wifi network, or a computer that was located in the common area of a home.
As almost anyone familiar with the internet will tell you, outward appearances cannot be trusted. For as long as online communication has allowed faceless anonymity, people have pretended to be something that they are not. For this reason, the internet has a long and well-known history as being an outlet for harmless fantasy cybersex. Thus, role-playing an imaginary under-age encounter between consenting adults is not an illegal act. There are several factors that may establish that an individual accused of Traveling to Meet a Minor or Internet Seduction of a Child was merely role-playing and had no unhealthy or improper motives. For example, engaging in discussion in an “adults only” or “moderated” chat-room, having an online conversation where the dialogue takes on a decidedly mature tone and sophisticated vocabulary, or an expression by one participant or the other that they are fantasizing or seeking to role-play.
Psychological Considerations or Mental Health Issues
There is a distinct culture on the Internet in which people transform themselves into a “fantasy character” for imaginative fun. There is also an important distinction between someone whom a prosecutor is seeking to certify as a “sexual predator” versus someone who merely harbors a fetish. Role playing and fetishes do not equate to violations of the criminal law.
There are sometimes mental health issues impacting our client’s ability to fully understand their actions. If we believe a mental health disorder played a factor in your case, it could be prudent for us to secure a psychological evaluation from a well regarded expert in the field.
The Use of Experts to Demonstrate that our Client is not Sexually Attracted to Minors
“Pedophilia” is a psychiatric personality disorder where an individual possesses a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to minor children. The method of distinguishing “true pedophiles” from non-pedophillic offenders is recognized as a valid and accepted diagnostic procedure in the medical community. It is important to note that the evaluator’s criteria does not require proof that actual sexual activity with a minor took place. A positive diagnosis can thus be established based solely on urges or fantasies.
Certainly, the criminal justice system would be concerned about the probability of recidivism if an individual was diagnosed with this disorder. On the other hand, the lawyers in our office will sometimes order a confidential psychological examination of our client. If this evaluation demonstrates that our client is not sexually attracted to minors, the medical report could be persuasive in convincing the Pinellas County State Attorney’s Office not to pursue a prosecution. In the alternative, such evidence could also be used in an effort to mitigate the charges, so as to achieve the best possible outcome.
Florida Penalties for Traveling to Meet a Minor
- Mandatory State Prison – Our politicians have concluded that any criminal activity that involves “minor children” and “sexual conduct” is highly unacceptable to society. Persons charged with these offenses are seen as deserving of the modern day version of the Puritan’s “scarlet letter.” The media is quick to jump on board by using emotion driven labels such as “predator” or “pedophile.” Unfortunately, this “one size fits all” attitude prevails, even where the criminal case did not involve an actual child. Under Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code, this crime is scored as a level 7 offense. This translates into a minimum state prison sentence of 21 months. If you have a prior criminal record, your sentencing points will be enhanced, exposing you to a longer period of incarceration.
- Mandatory Registration as a Sex Offender – A conviction for internet solicitation of a minor or traveling to meet a minor for sexual activity carries a mandatory requirement that the accused register as a sexual offender. This is a burdensome requirement that imposes numerous restraints on an individual’s liberty. See Florida Sex Offender Registry FAQ.
- Mandatory Sex Offender Probation Conditions – The offense of traveling to meet a minor not only can result in a state prison sentence, but this may (and often is) followed by a relatively lengthy period of probation or community control (house arrest). The Florida Legislature has mandated that a conviction for a sex offense that results in a probationary sentence carry certain conditions that must be fulfilled during the period of supervision.
Avoiding State Prison
The Judge in your case may have the discretion to make a “Downward Departure” from the sentencing guidelines and impose a non-state prison sentence. The following examples each represent a lawful basis under Florida law for the judge to side step the prison requirement:
- Negotiation with the prosecutor for a non-state prison sentence (regardless of the guideline requirement);
- The agreement with the prosecutor to reduce the Traveling to Meet a Minor charge to a single offense that does not carry mandatory state prison, such as “Child Abuse” (Fla. Stat. 827.03);
- Your offense was committed in an unsophisticated manner and was an isolated incident for which you have shown remorse. Florida Statute Section 921.0026 (2)(j). It is noteworthy that a Florida appellate court has found that the use of electronic communication tools have become so common, that it no longer requires any level of sophistication for use. As a result, a departure from a prison sentence for a solicitation of a minor was approved. State v. Murphy, 1D12-4514 (Fla. 1st DCA October 9, 2013);
- You suffer from a mental health issue unrelated to addiction and you are amenable to specialized treatment. Florida Statute Section 921.0026 (2)(d);
- The alleged victim was an initiator, willing participant, aggressor or provoker of the incident. Florida Statute Section 921.0026 (2)(f);
- Through the intervention of your attorney, you cooperated with law enforcement to achieve the arrest of another individual who had, or was committing violations of the law. Florida Statute Section 921.0026 (2)(i); or
- At the time of your sentencing you will be under 21 years of age. Florida Statute Section 921.0026 (2)(l).
Call Our Office – Free Confidential Consultation (727) 578-0303
You need to timely consult with a local St. Petersburg / Clearwater attorney who is experienced with the unique nature of these criminal offenses. The facts of every case are unique. However, sometimes an early intervention on our part can impact the State Attorney’s decision on whether to file formal charges, or perhaps to consider filing a lesser offense.
The lawyers in our office are former state prosecutors who limit their practice to only the Pinellas County Criminal Court System. At your initial consultation, we can discuss which options and strategies may be in your best interest. We can also assist you in securing a psychological examination if we believe such to be appropriate and beneficial to your case. A coordinated and well crafted strategy may later prove instrumental in achieving the best possible final outcome.
See our informative blog articles:
- Pinellas Sheriff Targets Traveling to Meet Minors
- Pinellas Conducts Traveling to Meet Minor Sting Operation
- Internet Sex Crimes Against Minors: The Response of Law Enforcement / U.S. Dept. of Justice
- Understanding Felony Sentencing in Florida
- Avoiding Publicity After Your Arrest
- Outstanding Pinellas County Warrants
- Mandatory Lie-Detector (polygraph) Examination for Sex Offenders