March 5, 2012

Internet stings: Does the fantasy defense hold water?

Scott Ritter, the former U.N. weapons inspector, was among the most vocal in insisting that the Bush administration fabricated its claims of “weapons of mass destruction” in order to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Ritter didn’t receive much public gratitude for his efforts to avert a costly and destructive war. Instead, he lost his career and his life gradually unraveled. Sinking deeper into depression, he fled into chat rooms, where he arranged rendezvous with adult women willing to watch him masturbate. At first, the meetings took place in cars or out-of-the-way places. Later, he switched to using a webcam, according to a profile by Matt Bai in the New York Times Magazine.

Then came that fateful day in February 2009 on which, in a Yahoo chat room for adults, he conversed with “Emily.” Although she told him she was 15, Emily was actually a small-town police officer, trolling for sexual predators online.

After doing his usual thing of masturbating in front of the webcam, Ritter announced he was signing off to take a shower.

Not so fast, retorted the officer:

"U know ur in a lot of trouble, don’t you? I’m a undercover police officer. U need to call me ASAP."

"Nah," Ritter typed back. "Your not 15. Yahoo is for 18 and over. It’s all fantasy. No crime."

"I have your phone number and I will be getting your IP address from Yahoo and your carrier," the officer responded. "We can do this 2 ways call me and you can turn yourself in at a latter date or I’ll get a warrant for you and come pick you up."

Ritter turned himself in. At his trial, he testified that he never for a moment believed he was talking to a minor; he assumed he was chatting with a bored housewife pretending to be 15.

Unfortunately for Ritter, jurors were told of his two prior arrests in similar cases, for which he was never prosecuted. In both cases, undercover police had lured him into meetings with fictional teenage girls. His claim that he knew that he was actually talking to undercover police in both cases likely strained the credulity of jurors, who convicted him in the case of “Emily.”

After hearing testimony from a government evaluator who called Ritter a sexually violent predator, the judge sentenced him late last year to a prison term of 18 months to five and a half years.

Fantasy defense succeeds in Queensland

Had it not been for his two earlier cases, Ritter’s defense might not have been all that far-fetched. After all, it worked for Darryl Plumridge of Queensland, Australia back in 2007.

Just like Ritter, Plumridge engaged in online chat with an undercover police officer posing as a teenage girl, in this case a 13-year-old with the screen name of “Erin Princess Baby.”

His defense was simple, according to a forthcoming article in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law: “He claimed that he knew the person with whom he was communicating was an older male and he was simply role playing.”

At trial, he testified that the covert police operative inadvertently supplied various content cues as to his true age and gender. For example, he signed off by saying "see ya later alligator," something no self-respecting 21st-century girl would say. Even more tellingly, he accidentally said he ("she") was at the office when "she" was supposed to be home from school, a glaring error that "she" immediately corrected.

Plumridge was acquitted. 

Study: Can people see through online deception?

Criminologist Robyn Lincoln of Bond University and forensic psychologist Ian R. Coyle, a Gold Coast practitioner and associate professor of law who testified in the case, decided to conduct a study to test the plausibility of Plumridge’s defense. Given the flat nature of internet communication, lacking in physical or tonal cues, can people actually deduce the true age and gender of someone who is pretending to be someone else?

Bottom line? Yes, they often can.

Lincoln and Coyle randomly assigned 46 students as either "deceivers" or "receivers." Each volunteer participant was met off-site and individually led to one of several private study locations, to preclude chance encounters with other participants. Deceivers were instructed to play the role of a 13-year-old girl. Receivers, in contrast, were misled to believe that they might be talking with individuals ranging in age from young children to the elderly. The pairs then chatted with each other for 30 minutes.

Despite the deceivers' best efforts, the majority of receivers were able to correctly identify the age and gender of the person with whom they were chatting, within a five-year bandwidth. None of the receivers believed they were talking to someone under the age of 16.

Thus, the claims of Plumridge and Ritter, that they knew they were chatting with adults but ignored that reality for purposes of fantasy role-playing, appear to have some scientific basis.

As law enforcement officers increasingly partake in trolling the internet for sexual predators in their spare time, it is probably only a matter of time before the Bond University study is introduced into court as evidence.

The study, "No one Knows you’re a Dog on the Internet: Implications for Proactive Police Investigation of Sexual Offenders," has been accepted for publication in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law. Correspondence may be directed to the first author, Robyn Lincoln.


oncefallendotcom said...

In many so-called Internet stings, the undercover agent tend to be the non-typical teenager. Most online solicitations would simply be ignored or blocked in the first place or if the solicitor got too intrusive. Instead, the agent pretends to be an overtly sexual teen and even aggressive in the pursuit of sex in order to set up the alleged predators. If it was anything but sex crime one could make a successful claim they were manipulated into it but in the case of sex crimes, all reason goes out the window.

researcherone said...

I was wondering if this case is actually a crime. After all, people like Ritter were not interacting with an actual minor, so no law was broken, despite the agent's "teenage" tag name. This is especially true if the one being stung knew that the covert agent was, in fact, an agent. Again, what law was actually broken?

"Instead, the agent pretends to be an overtly sexual teen and even aggressive in the pursuit of sex in order to set up the alleged predators."

And does that prove somehow that Ritter et al are/were actually prowling for teenagers? If agents are persistent, that would seem to negate the 'predator' factor of those whom you sting, especially if that person has no priors.

"If it was anything but sex crime one could make a successful claim they were manipulated into it but in the case of sex crimes, all reason goes out the window."

So what you are saying is that when it comes to sex crimes, law enforcement agents have a right to break the law and violate the rights of the people they sting, even it it is for the purpose of keeping kids/teenagers safe?

As I was always told: Two wrongs don't make a right; you can't correct an alleged "wrong" by behaving wrongly yourself.

"Thus, the claims of Plumridge and Ritter, that they knew they were chatting with adults but ignored that reality for purposes of fantasy role-playing, appear to have some scientific basis."

Well, it appears as if law enforce behavior in this kind of situation will soon be corrected by rational thinking and empirical/scientific evaluation. Will you be able to tolerate that?

I am a adamant proponent for protecting the vulnerable, like kids and teenagers (even my own), but not at the expense of violating the law or the rights of someone else. Real justice, to me, doesn't work that way.

researcherone said...

Sorry, I wanted to add some clarification to one point I made above:

"As I was always told: Two wrongs don't make a right; you can't correct an alleged 'wrong' by behaving wrongly yourself."

Rather, you can't correct an allege "wrong" OR enforce a "right" (like protecting the innocent or vulnerable) by committing a "wrong."

What does one do when a perceived moral "right" conflicts with the law or facts handed down through empirical evaluation by experts? Which holds, or should hold, the most power?

I am not trying to moralize or be philosophical here, just be objectively rational.

researcherone said...

Ooops! When I initially read oncefallen's post, I assumed the poster was law enforcement. Now in rereading it, I realize I was likely mistaken. My sincerest apologies for my erroneous assumption and for the tone of my previous posts in reference to that.

By the way, I always thought that law enforcement agents taking the guise of teenagers online never pursue, only lie in wait. How can they if they don't know who or where the actual predators are? They would likely only know if approached by one, no? If they set anyone up, they can be charged with entrapment, especially if the person they ensnare has committed no crime. It has become a desperate game indeed!

Anonymous said...

Most states have put in place a law stating that even though the person chatting is actually a law enforcement officer the other person can be charged. You can now be at your home and talking "sex" with an "underaged" person, or undercover law enforcement officer and they will come into your home. you dont even have to leave any more to meet them. It has become very crazy, all in the guise of protecting children. I agree, I will do anything to protect my children but 15, 16, and 17 year old girls and boys are making adult decisions everyday and need to be held accountable for those choices and actions.

LM said...

I know something about son was caught in one of these stings. He was in the Mature rooms of Yahoo....the state named ones. He contacted 2 different people, one that had 99 in the profile and one that had no age showing. Law enforcement in the media say he contacted 3.....but in his probable cause it states that a third was contacted but did not respond. So he would not have ever known what age that one was portraying. Once they said their supposed age....he discontinued chatting. Both of these officers after a long pause recontacted him. They chatted for a bit...and the age came up again....and he again discontinued chatting. He then talked one of them into talking on the which he hung up when he thought she sounded young. This officer contacted him immediatly after the call, then again 2.5 hours later then again 30 minutes. At no time did he answer any of the officers advances. YES he was convicted on that one. The other was similar. He did talk on the phone and thought this one sounded older. They were going to meet. He then imed the officer and said he was not going to meet. The officer went into a tirade about, how I could do that to "her" and that I was being stupid. The officer finally said "I can walk to a store somewhere and you can meet me there" to which he said "ok we can get something to eat" officer "pizza ok?" and son said ok. Yes he was convicted on that one too. The Lawyers are afraid to win these cases because of the media hype, and yes he was plastered all over the media....with lies and half truths gallore. He is waiting to hear about his appeal. The cops are playing predator.....and the self fulfilling prophecy is in effect....these are not kids being preyed on ...these are adults that want to make an arrest...while playing on the internet.

Stonedog1020 said...

These stings are rampant in the state of Colorado. Same thing. This stuff will never be stopped unless it is done by the parents. Have you ever seen the sites like ChatRoulette? They are all a bunch of guys beating off for girls. And I am sure many from both sides are underage. There is no way to stop all of this unless parents do. They cannot arrest everyone on the internet. Plus all of the officers in Colorado who are wasting there time with this could be out looking for crazy's who have lost it and go into a movie theater on opening night of Bat Man and Kill lots of people. But that would make too much sense. Also this has turned into a big business for attorny's, judges and jails. They are making money like crazy from all of these victims and never usually take it too court because there is a good chance they will lose. So victim has to take a plea and be registered and ruin their lives.

Unknown said...

The last post is absolutely true in colorado when a man goes into an adult chat room to meet a woman obviously he is not looking for a child otherwise there are many other places they could go the charges are CRAP they are processing. This country is a tracking our men careful cause it can happen to you