Internet Sex Crimes
Advances in modern technology have created a new type of crime known as cybercrime which uses electronic communications such as the internet to facilitate criminal activity. The crimes themselves are not new, what is new is the ability to sit anonymously behind a monitor to engage in these acts. One of the most prolific categories of criminal activity is internet sex crimes which have challenged law enforcement agencies to work together on the state and federal level to develop new methods to arrest and prosecute offenders. The internet crosses state lines so many crimes can be charged on the federal level and add additional penalties.
The largest concern for law enforcement agencies is the staggering number of internet crimes that are perpetrated against minors. The FBI estimates that in the U.S. one in seven children have been contacted through the internet with sexually explicit material. Predators use the internet to collect child pornography, to chat with children, to lure children and to meet up with other predators. Most perpetrators are caught using sting operations that often include many agencies.
Law enforcement monitors chat rooms, web sites and person to person websites such as MySpace. If criminal activity is suspected then a decoy will be set to either lure the perpetrator “out” or gather data to arrest anyone that may be involved. Most web service providers including MySpace are very cooperative in helping law enforcement. In the United States internet crimes involving a minor are punishable on both the state and federal level. Possession of child pornography is a felony and requires that if convicted, the perpetrator register as a sex offender for life. It falls under the broad category of sexual exploitation of children and is punishable by 5 to 20 years in prison for a first offense 15 to 40 years for a second offense and 35 years to life for additional offenses.
Solicitation crimes such as prostitution and pandering have become more widespread in cyberspace. Often these ads or websites list themselves as escorts. Typing the word “escort” into a search engine will return over thirty million hits. Searching online personals will also result in a number “escort” ads. A legitimate escort service is legal, however, prostitution is not. Pimping and pandering occur when individuals seek out potential sex workers by recruiting using websites such as MySpace or Craigslist. Undercover officers search internet site for these ads, contact the suspect and a arrange meeting. Arrests are made once the suspect agreed to exchange sex acts for money. The federal government typically gets involved when they discover an interstate “ring”. The current penalties for online solicitation for sexual services are about the same as it is for traditional charges. Prostitution is typically a misdemeanor which is less than one year in the county jail, a fine or both. Pimping and pandering are felonies and sentences vary in length from one to six years in state prison for the first offense and longer sentences for repeat offenses.
The amount of pornographic material available on the internet is staggering, you may have to pay for it at some sites or you can watch as many free home movies as you would like at free sites. The idea of legislating pornography is difficult as it walks a fine line with the First Amendment and free speech rights. Internet pornographic material is not illegal as a watcher or a provider unless a minor is involved. Possessing or offering material that is deemed “obscene” is a crime. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain “hard-core” pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be (pornographic / obscene) . . . but I know it when I see it. For something to be “obscene” it must be shown that the average person viewing the material would find that the work depicts or describes sexual conduct in a blatantly offensive way, and that it does not have literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Publishing obscene material online is a federal crime and carries a penalty of not more than five years in prison or a fine or both. This does not include any acts with a minor.
Someone arrested for an internet sex crime will potentially have a difficult time defending the crime. The fact that the crime was committed over the internet is what makes it hard to defend. Internet sex crimes tend to leave an electronic trail. Just because something is deleted from a computer does not make it disappear. Aside from taking your computer apart and smashing the components to bits the information will still be there. A reasonably skilled computer tech can track deleted information. Law enforcement keeps track of emails, messages, websites and other information to make sure that they have a trail before an arrest. Internet providers and website administrators often cooperate with law enforcement when crimes are committed and can provide tracking information.
In internet sex crimes, potential defenses might include entrapment i.e., the information was not solicited by the defendant. Another possible defense could be a First Amendment defense to argue what is obscene and or free speech and freedom of the press. Finally if a minor is involved, reasonable misrepresentation of age by an individual or the information provider may make an argument in the defendant’s favor.