Internet Sting Operations in Florida
Our Florida Solicitation Defense Attorneys Can Help
Solicitation can lead to severe penalties, particularly if they involve a minor or the crime is committed somewhere within 1000 feet of a school. Computers have been used increasingly in solicitation and other related crimes, which is why Florida law enforcement has begun cracking down on Internet felonies and misdemeanors using Internet sting operations.
Contact Musca Law today, if you’ve been accused of solicitation using the Internet, the computer, or any other electronic devices. We offer free consultations.
The Florida legislature has created a new form of laws and punishments for adults who actually meet with minors after an internet solicitation has transgressed. If an adult travels any distance to meet a minor with the intent of sexual activity, he or she could face a 2nd-degree felony. Punishments for this offense include up to 15 years in prison and potential legal fees.
Internet Sting Operations
Internet sting operations are prevalent in Florida and can lead to serious consequences for the subjects of these practices. Musca Law is familiar with the tactics law enforcement officers use during sting operations, and we have the skills necessary to defend people facing charges related to stings.
What is a Sting Operation?
Internet sting operations, also called “sex stings,” are operations in which law enforcement officers impersonate minors, adults offering threesomes or group sexual encounters with their alleged relatives under 18 years of age, or adults supposedly looking for educational or recreational sexual arrangements in order to catch perpetrators who may be looking for illegal sexual encounters with a minor. The operations might be carried out on dating websites, in internet chatrooms, through instant messaging apps, on social media, or through other online platforms.
Discussion of sting operations might conjure up memories of the television show “To Catch a Predator,” which ran on NBC for several years. In each episode of the show, adults (typically adult men) used internet chatrooms to talk to people they believed were minors. A meetup was arranged, and when the suspects arrived at the agreed upon location, they were confronted by the host of the show, as well as law enforcement officers. The stunts made for good TV but ruined many lives.
Sting operations in real life are not very far removed from the television show. Law enforcement officers will use the internet to engage in conversations with adults while posing as minors. The conversations will progress to a sexual nature, potentially involving exchange of photographs or videos or setting a time to meet for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts. Not all stings involve a planned meetup, but many of them reach this stage. At some point during the operation, the officers make their arrests.
Use of Sting Operations in Florida
Florida law enforcement officers have created a reputation for using sting operations to arrest adults for child sex crimes in the state. In November 2019, officers arrested 17 men in Central Florida as part of a sting operation. The arrests were widely publicized, particularly because one of the men arrested was a former middle school assistant principal, and two others were Disney World employees.
Since 2011, officers in Sarasota County, Florida, have arrested at least 133 people using ongoing internet sting operations. They say they use the stings to catch people seeking to take advantage of children and to deter people who might do the same. The sheriff’s office there has stayed committed to the practice, despite concerns about its legalities and despite an arrestee’s suicide in 2019 right after he bonded out of jail.
These practices are not confined to a few areas of Florida but occur throughout the state. Our attorneys understand how internet sting operations are carried out, and we know how to fight the allegations. In many cases, the officers involved in sting operations lure people into committing crimes they would otherwise never have committed. An arrest associated with a sting operation can bring turmoil to families and can mean extreme consequences if the state obtains a conviction.
You need an experienced Florida sting operation defense attorney if you are facing any charges connected to a sex sting. The lawyers at Musca Law can help you understand your rights and defend your liberties.
Charges and Penalties Associated with Florida Internet Sting Operations
Numerous charges can follow an internet sting operation. Prosecutors will include several sex crimes in the charges, depending on the circumstances of the sting and acts that occurred while the defendant was engaging with an undercover officer. Each crime will carry a different possible punishment prescribed by Florida law. In addition to the penalties described below, a majority of sex crimes in Florida will require sex offender registration.
Solicitation of a Minor (Lewd and Lascivious Conduct)
A person might be charged with solicitation of a minor or lewd and lascivious conduct after an internet sting operation in Florida. According to Florida Statute § 800.04, lewd or lascivious conduct includes intentionally touching a minor in a lewd or lascivious way or soliciting a minor to engage in a lewd or lascivious act.
The statute does not spell out what the terms “lewd” and “lascivious” mean, but a jury instruction in the state indicates that they are interchangeable and mean something lustful, sensual, wicked, or unchaste. The law is understood to mean acts of a sexual nature.
Solicitation of a minor and lewd or lascivious conduct will be charged as third-degree felonies or second-degree felonies in the state, according to § 800.04, depending on the age of the defendant. If the defendant is 18 years of age or older, the crime will be charged as a second-degree felony. This carries a possible punishment of 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If the defendant is younger than 18 years of age, the crime will be charged as a third-degree felony. This carries a possible punishment of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Traveling to Meet a Minor
Florida law recognizes a separate crime of traveling to meet a minor, which involves the defendant going any distance by any means to meet a child for the purpose of engaging in unlawful sexual conduct. This is the type of situation often involved in Florida internet stings, as officers eventually try to set up a meeting with the sting targets.
Florida Statute § 847.0135 states that traveling to meet a minor involves traveling, attempting to travel, causing another person to travel, or attempting to cause another person to travel to meet a child to engage in a sexual act. The traveling follows the acts of luring, enticing, soliciting, or seducing a minor to engage in a sexual act through use of a computer service, internet service, bulletin service, or other electronic device.
The law does not require that an actual minor be involved. Section 847.0135 states that it is enough if the defendant believes that the person he or she is traveling to meet is a minor. It is also not necessary that any unlawful sexual acts take place. The law says it is enough that the acts are solicited or that the act of traveling to meet is attempted. This is how people can be arrested in Florida during sting operations when they have never actually been talking to a minor and have never engaged in a sexual act with a minor.
Traveling to meet a minor in Florida will be charged as a second-degree felony. The punishment for a conviction can be up to 15 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Solicitation of a Minor Using a Computer or Electronic Device
Florida law also recognizes a separate crime of soliciting a minor by use of a computer service or device. Under Florida Statute § 847.0135, a person cannot use an internet service, a computer service, a bulletin service, or any electronic device with storage and transmission capabilities in order to lure, entice, solicit, or seduce a child to engage in sexual conduct. The law also includes attempts to do the same.
Again, it is not necessary that an actual minor be involved or that an actual act take place. Not all sting operations involve meetups, and indeed, a law enforcement officer can make an arrest as soon as a person even attempts to solicit an undercover officer.
Solicitation of a minor through a computer or internet service will be charged as a third-degree felony in Florida. This can carry a potential punishment of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Lewd and Lascivious Battery
A person might be charged with lewd and lascivious battery after a sting operation in Florida, as well. Section 800.04 states that a person commits lewd and lascivious battery when he or she engages in a sexual act with a person between the ages of 12 and 15 or encourages, forces, or entices a person younger than 16 to engage in sexual acts, including bestiality, prostitution, and sadomasochistic abuse. One might think that battery charges require touching of some kind, but the law expressly includes mere encouragement or enticement.
Lewd and lascivious battery will typically be charged as a second-degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. However, if a person has a prior conviction for any of the following, the charges will be elevated to a first-degree felony:
- Kidnapping of a minor involving sexual battery
- False imprisonment of a minor involving sexual battery
- Sexual battery
- Lewd or lascivious offenses involving elderly or disabled persons
- Computer pornography
- Solicitation of a minor using a computer service or device
- Traveling to meet a minor
- Lewd or lascivious offenses involving persons younger than 16
A first-degree felony in Florida is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 30 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
Additional charges that might follow an internet sting operation in Florida include those related to child pornography. There are several types of child pornography charges in Florida, including the following:
- Manufacturing child pornography – Involves the creation of images or videos of children that are pornographic in nature. Manufacturing child pornography can include soliciting children for the purpose of creating pornographic materials. This crime can be charged as a second-degree felony in Florida, which includes a prison sentence up to 15 years and a fine up to $10,000.
- Distributing child pornography – Involves the knowing advertisement, sale, distribution, or disbursement of images or videos of children that are pornographic in nature. This crime can also be charged as a second-degree felony which includes a prison sentence up to 15 years and a fine up to $10,000.
- Possession of child pornography – Involves possession of one or more images or videos of children that are pornographic in nature. These might be on the defendant’s person or stored on an electronic device, such as the defendant’s phone or computer. This crime can be charged as a third-degree felony in Florida, which includes a prison sentence up to five years and a fine up to $5,000.
- Exposing a minor to pornography – Involves showing pornographic content of any kind (not necessarily featuring children) to a minor. This crime can be charged as a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida, which includes a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine up to $1,000.
Child pornography charges can result from a sting operation if the sting target solicits the undercover officer to create child pornography or if the officer learns about any other situations involving child pornography during the operation.
Charges Involving Parents, Guardians, and Custodians
Section 847.0135 involves solicitation of parents, guardians, and custodians of minor children. Just as it is a crime in Florida to solicit a minor for sexual acts, it is also a crime to solicit or attempt to solicit a minor’s parent, guardian, or custodian into providing consent for the child to engage in a sexual act. The statute also states that it is enough for the defendant to believe that the person is the parent, guardian, or custodian of a minor child.
Some sting operations, working inside these subsections of Florida law, involve officers posing as parents, guardians, or custodians and talking to adults on the internet about allowing their minor children to engage in sexual acts. These are not as common as those in which officers pose as minors, but they do take place and do lead to arrests and criminal charges. The crime might be charged as a third-degree felony or a second-degree felony, depending on the behaviors and circumstances involved.
Defenses to Charges Resulting from an Internet Sting Operation in Florida
Several defenses are available in internet sting operation cases, the most notable of which is entrapment. Sting operations are controversial because they have the propensity to lure people into committing crimes that they would never have committed but for the sting. Other defenses can include lack of intent, illegal search and seizure, and insufficient evidence.
During these cases, the issue of entrapment is always raised. Entrapment is a practice law enforcement uses to induce a person to commit a criminal offense the person would have otherwise been unlikely to commit. Defenses of entrapment have also evolved mainly through case law. However, two competing texts exist to determine whether entrapment has occurred: subjective and objective. The subjective test looks at the defendant’s state of mind. Entrapment exists if the defendant had no “predisposition” to commit the offense. The objective test looks at the government’s conduct. Entrapment exists if the actions of law enforcement would have induced any ordinary law-abiding citizen to commit a crime.
Many internet sting operations cases involve defendants who backed out of meetups or expressed discomfort with talking to someone underage but were arrested after the undercover officer persisted. Other cases involve officers using adult dating websites to start conversations with adults, after which they change the age on their profiles. These tactics push the line, and the people targeted by them need to stand up for their rights. Your attorney will closely look at all of the actions involved in the sting operation to see if the law enforcement officer(s) committed entrapment.
Lack of Intent
Intent matters in many sex crimes cases, and this area should be examined as a possible defense. The prosecution needs to prove every element of the crime. If intent is one element involved, and you did not act with the requisite intent, the charges are not appropriate. In internet sting operations cases, the defendant must have believed he or she was communicating with a minor and must have communicated with the minor with some level of sexual, lewd, or lascivious intent.
Illegal Search and Seizure
Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers cannot conduct unlawful searches or seizures. If the law enforcement officers investigating your case carried out a search or seizure without a warrant or in some other illegal manner, you can move to exclude the seized evidence as a violation of your constitutional rights. If you made a statement at some point in the investigation without the appropriate steps from law enforcement, you can also move to exclude the statement. This might involve making a statement when you have not been informed of your Miranda rights or making a statement when you have asked for a lawyer to be present but have not been given the opportunity to contact a lawyer.
Many criminal cases, including cases stemming from internet sting operations, come down to the prosecution’s burden of proof. The prosecution has to prove every element of the case against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. If that has not been accomplished, the defendant should not be convicted. It is important to always remember that you are innocent until proven guilty, and it is the state’s job to prove your guilt, not your job to prove your innocence. Your defense should cast doubt on and attack the credibility of the state’s case.
Your lawyer will review all possible defenses in your case to determine which should be employed and how they should be raised. Your lawyer will likely file motions before and during trial to attempt to dismiss the charges or exclude certain evidence. Defenses in your case might include one or more of the above or might be different, depending on the facts and circumstances involved in the sting operation, the nature of the charges, and your criminal history.
All sex crimes in Florida can result in strict penalties, as well as emotional, familial, social, and professional consequences. It is extremely important that you take the charges seriously and hire experienced, dedicated legal representation, like the representation you will find at Musca Law. Our lawyers have combined experience of more than 150 years defending against criminal charges, and we understand the complexities involved in internet sting operations cases. Contact us today to speak to one of our attorneys about your case.
Hire an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Today
If you’ve been accused of solicitation using the Internet, you need to talk to a skilled Florida criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Sex crimes are prosecuted harshly, but sex crimes involving children are even more severe and can follow a person for the rest of his or her life. Make sure your life isn’t marred by a sex crime charge. Keep your reputation and your freedom intact with the help of our solicitation defense lawyers. We will work tirelessly on your behalf to achieve a positive outcome.