The Pensacola News Journal reported on September 17 that an undercover sting operation involving multiple local law enforcement agencies throughout the Florida Panhandle resulted in the arrest of 22 people.
During a press conference at the Pensacola Police Department (PPD) on September 14, authorities announced that the sting targeting adults using the internet to solicit sex with children–dubbed “Operation Undertow”–was conducted between September 7 and September 11. The sting resulted in the arrests of men from Alabama and Mississippi as well as a pastor from Pace, and State Attorney Bill Eddins said that the alleged offenders could face between five years and life in prison, depending on their specific charges.
The PPD said that undercover agents posing as teenagers on various websites were contacted by an alleged offender who agreed to meet them for sex, and the alleged offenders were arrested when they arrived at the arranged meeting locations. According to the Journal, the PPD worked the investigation in coordination with the North Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and the help of the following agencies:
The Journal reported that Pensacola Chief of Police David Alexander said law enforcement agencies are still following leads and more arrests could still be forthcoming. “This effort of arresting and prosecuting these individuals helps to stop future abuse,” Alexander said at the press conference.
Reality television programs such as NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” popularized the concept of police officers posing as children in order to catch alleged offenders committing online offenses. People who have been charged with online solicitation of a minor or traveling to meet a minor need to understand that these undercover tactics are not illegal and the fact that an adult was posing as a minor cannot be used as an affirmative defense against criminal charges. Under Florida Statute § 847.0135(3), it is a third-degree felonypunishable by up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000 for an alleged offender to knowingly use a computer online service, Internet service, local bulletin board service, or any other device capable of electronic data storage or transmission to:
An alleged offender who misrepresents his or her age in the commission of any alleged offense can be charged with a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Furthermore, each separate use of a computer online service, Internet service, local bulletin board service, or any other device capable of electronic data storage or transmission to commit an alleged offense listed above is treated as a separate offense, meaning that person who uses a computer 10 times to solicit minors for sex can face 10 counts of soliciting a child for unlawful sexual conduct.
Florida Statute § 847.0135(4) also makes it a second-degree felony for an alleged offender to travel any distance either within this state, to this state, or from this state by any means, and attempt to do so or cause another to do so or to attempt to do so for the purpose of engaging in any illegal act described in chapter 794 (Sexual Battery), chapter 800 (Lewdness; Indecent Exposure), or chapter 827 (Abuse of Children) of the Florida Statutes, 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:
Prosecutors aggressively pursue maximum sentences for alleged offenders accused of either one of these crimes. It is always in the best interest of anybody accused of online solicitation of a minor or traveling to meet a minor to immediately contact Pumphrey Law in order to discuss all of the possible legal defenses.
Attorney Don Pumphrey, Jr. is a former prosecutor, former law enforcement officer, and a successful and experienced criminal defense attorney. Don has achieved over 100 not guilty verdicts at trial and over 2,000 dismissals.
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