Online Solicitation of a Minor and Internet Sting Operations
Posted on May 27, 2015 7:00am UTC
Houston police recently closed out a sting operation with the arrest of a dozen men who showed up at a house believing they were meeting with minors they solicited for sex on the Internet. As with similar sting operations, there were never any minors involved in the online communications. Police officers posing as children were the targets of the solicitation by the suspects.
Sting Operations – When “Children” Go Trolling for Adult Suspects
The sting operation in Houston illustrates an important point about state and federal laws making solicitation of minor a criminal act: There does not have to be an actual victim. Typical police operations begin with an officer “trolling” the Internet or a particular chat room with a profile created to appear to be that of a minor.
The police officer waits for contact from someone expressing an interest in engaging in sexual contact with the minor. When a suspect takes the bait, the police officer allows the relationship between the “child” and the suspect to develop in the hope of the adult arranging a meeting for purposes of engaging in sexual contact, sexual intercourse or deviate sexual intercourse.
Houston Online Solicitation of a Minor
Online solicitation of a minor is a state law in Texas that makes it a crime:
- To communicate with a person who is younger than 17 years of age in a sexually explicit way or to distribute sexually explicit material to the underage individual.
- To attempt to arrange a meeting with a person believed to be a minor for purposes of engaging in sexual activities
The method of communication can be by email, by text message, or over the Internet. An adult prosecuted under the law cannot claim as a defense the fact that:
- The meeting with the minor did not take place
- The adult doing the solicitation did not intent for the meeting to take place
- The adult was engaged in an online fantasy
A violation of the Houston law is a felony punishable by a prison sentence and substantial fines. If the minor is under 14 years of age, the prison sentence can be for up to 20 years. Even in sting operations where the “child” is actually a police officer, the fact that the suspect believed the child to be younger than 14 is enough to allow a judge to impose the longer prison sentence.
Internet Solicitation Crimes Can Be Complex Cases
Lawmakers sometimes go too far in trying to make certain conduct a criminal act. For example, an appeals court in Texas ruled that parts of the online solicitation of a minor law were a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The court ruled that the section of the law making it a crime to communicate in a sexually explicit manner with a person who was younger than 17 years of age was overbroad. Essentially, the court said the law went too far without the state being able to justify its actions.
Whenever a state passes a law that restricts speech, or other conduct that falls under the protection of the First Amendment, it must show that there is a compelling interest that can only be served by restricting it. It must also demonstrate that method used is the least restrictive means possible to accomplish protection of the state’s interest.
Although the state argued that the restriction on sexually explicit speech and on the distribution of sexually explicit materials, the section of the law was as narrowly drawn as it could be and still offer protection to minors who might be the targets of the conduct. The court, however, disagreed.
The appeals court decision focused on the fact that the conduct from which the statute sought to protect children was inducing them to engage in sexual conduct with the adult. Instead, the law focused on prohibiting sexually explicit speech which was, according to the appeals court, going too far toward violating the First Amendment.
Untouched by the court’s ruling is the section of the law that prohibits solicitation of a minor to meet for purposes of engaging in sexual relations. This would seem to clear the way for a continuation of police sting operations.
Lingering Questions About The Online Solicitation Law
The sections of the law that were not ruled to be unconstitutional by the Texas appeals court are relied upon by law enforcement to conduct sting operations. The fact that the law prohibits a individuals accused of committing this crime from defending themselves by proving that the meeting with the minor never occurred or was never intended to occur might be grounds for further attacks on the law.
A Houston Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help
The consequences of a conviction for violation of the state’s online solicitation of a minor law in Houston are severe and must be taken seriously. If you have been caught in a police sting operation, an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney is your best source for legal advice and guidance.
If you’ve been charged with online solicitation of a minor or other sex crimes, contact attorney Billy Skinner. We will preserve your rights and fight for your future. Call (713) 600-7777 or email today.
Photo Mario Zucca | Used under Creative Commons image attribution license 2.0