A vigilante children's advocacy group that set up a sting using a fake profile of a 10-year-old girl that baited an Australian man into online sex took things "a step too far," according to one civil rights activist.
Scott Robert Hansen, of Brisbane, Australia, was sentenced to two years in prison this week after he began corresponding online with what he thought was young Filipino girl and then sent her a video of a sexual act.
The child, called "Sweetie," was actually a fake account run by a Dutch advocacy group called Terre des Hommes.
The case has launched a debate over whether civilian groups who set up stings are actually practicing entrapment — unfairly enticing people to commit a crime.
"A private organization that isn't subject to the same prohibitions (as police), actively setting up an entrapment scenario" is a "significant ethical dilemma," Terry O'Gorman, president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, told the Guardian after the sentencing.
"It's a really worrying and almost vigilante approach by this child protection group to set up an avatar in a manner designed to induce a belief in the person charged that he's dealing with an actual child," O'Gorman said.
'He would not be able to raise entrapment as a defense.'
O'Gorman could not be reached for comment in time for this story, but VICE News spoke to experts in the United States who explained that it is perfectly legal — though discouraged by law enforcement — for civilian groups to set up elaborate stings online, though it is a thorny ethical issue.
"As an ethical matter, I am leery of the practice if the opportunity or enticement is greater than that which the perpetrator would likely encounter elsewhere," Anthony Dillof, law professor at Wayne State University and an expert on entrapment, told VICE News today. "Just about anybody can be lured into crime if the enticement is enough and the odds of apprehension are low enough."
Still, what the group did would not constitute entrapment under US law and likely did not fall under it in Australia either, he said, noting that the term only applies to actions taken by law enforcement or government agents.
"He would not be able to raise entrapment as a defense," said Dillof. There is no legal reason, according to Dillof, that the video of his sexual acts would not be admitted into evidence just because they were obtained through a private sting operation.
Police groups create stings all the time, for both online sex crimes and more tangible things like car theft, according to Professor John Myers at the McGeorge School of Law at University of the Pacific. But police are typically careful to stick to the law to avoid entrapment, and get a conviction. Private groups aren't regulated by any similar statute, he said.
"The whole entrapment defense is based on idea that it's just kind of wrong for police to create crime out of whole cloth… and you don't want police creating crime when it doesn't exist. There's a fine line there," Myers said.
In the US, law enforcement has tried to dissuade vigilante groups from executing the same online "stings" and "setups" that they use to catch would-be predators, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
"There have been some similar efforts in the US. There were these groups that were advocacy or vigilante groups that got into the business of trying to nab potential child molesters or people looking for pornography and send them over to the police," Finkelhor told VICE News today.
"The law enforcement community really tried to discourage this and generally took the point of view that these were highly technical investigations involving complex legal and ethical issues that needed to be handled by professionals and not by advocates," he said. "I think when the advocates found that law enforcement was not really willing to take their referrals that whole process got short-circuited in the States."
Finkelhor cited the TV show To Catch a Predator as an example of civilian-run stings that were ultimately discouraged by police here. On the show, which ran from 2004 to 2007, film crews and actors would try and catch adults, often men, in the act of trying to engage in sex with underage girls they chatted with online.
"It's very appealing for people who want to help law enforcement and have very negative view of what these offenders are doing, but I think there's a pretty general recognition here that the standards of these investigations need to be very high to make sure that that legal standards are being maintained for what can stand up in court as evidence for intention to commit a crime," Finkelhor added.
The TV show worked with an online advocacy group called Perverted Justice, which continued to record chatroom conversations with potential predators and turn them over to police even after the show was canceled. The group, which boasts that its stings have led to 588 convictions since 2004, did not respond to requests for comment today. Two children's rights groups, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Children's Alliance, both declined to comment on the tactics used by the Dutch group.
"In general, outside the area of child sexual abuse, this sort of thing — enticement into crime for the purpose of conviction — virtually never happens. It's a novel phenomena," Dillof noted. "The group that is doing it has to be wary however. In theory they could be liable as accomplices to a criminal act depending on the nuances of the jurisdiction's law on accomplice liability."
Finkelhor said that online stings, when carried out by law enforcement, have helped to curb the problem of online predators.
"This has been a new area that has been enabled by electronic technology, and probably, to my view, it has been successful at catching people at the earlier stages of their offending cycle," he said.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen