Legislation takes aim at Internet predators

Bill clears up confusion over use of police stings

General Assembly

April 14, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Maryland legislators answered persistent questions about the validity of laws used to prosecute suspected Internet predators this week by passing legislation that makes it a crime to solicit children for sex - even if the "minor" is a police officer posing online.

If signed into law, prosecutors hope the bill will end the legal wrangling that has become routine in cases involving defendants caught in Web-based stings in recent years. Defense attorneys have challenged the law since a Frederick County judge dismissed one case in 2000, saying there could be no crime if there was no child victim.

"It's very important that law enforcement [officers] be able to make contact with sexual predators rather than the actual minor," said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, whose office pushed for the legislation. " ... I always felt that the [existing] law was good enough, but this makes it crystal clear."

Cases involving fictitious victims have routinely been brought under the state's child pornography statute. But questions about the wording of that law, which refers only to "minor" victims, and whether it should apply to solicitation cases, have twice reached Maryland's highest court.

Sidetracked by a technicality in one case, the Court of Appeals never ruled on whether soliciting a fictitious victim was a crime. The court heard arguments in the second case in December, but has not yet ruled.

With the issue in legal limbo, some Circuit Court judges have opted to wait for a Court of Appeals ruling before resolving similar cases.

While those cases will be governed by what the Court of Appeals decides, the new legislation should remove the "foggy area" in the law for future prosecutions, said Amy Blank Ocampo, a Carroll County assistant state's attorney.

"This makes it clear cut," she said. "This is a crime."

The new legislation creates the crime of sexual solicitation of a minor, whether through online, phone or person-to-person communication, and makes provisions for authorities to apply for a wiretap as part of their investigation. But it also accounts for the realities of Internet stings. .

Early versions of the bill made it a crime to solicit someone a defendant "believes to be a minor." The final version specifically refers to law enforcement officers who pose as children.

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