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Catfished and charged: are sting operations entrapment?

You may remember the TV series “To Catch a Predator” in which the producers, sometimes working alongside police, impersonate minors in order to lure possible sex offenders. While the show obtained national popularity and led to several spin-offs, some viewers wondered if such tactics are a form of entrapment.

Not only did the show use this technique, but law enforcement also “catfishes,” or pretends to be someone else online. Police call this a sting operation. Their goal is to proactively catch crime in the act before an actual child is in danger, but agents must walk a fine line to avoid creating an unfair situation or causing undue emotional harm.

An Ohio college student was recently the subject of a sting operation, which ended in his arrest. Police first reached out to him online while posing as a 15-year-old boy. After consistent messaging, police revealed the fictional boy’s age. The student still sent nude photos and agreed to meet the boy in person for sexual relations.

In order for this sting operation to be valid, police must not have pressured the student into carrying out a crime he would not otherwise commit. For example, they cannot threaten the target’s safety if they refuse to meet up with a minor. Agents are also prohibited from repeatedly insisting on the crime until the target eventually gives in. The sting operation must be free from discrimination or conflicts of interest as well. Instead, sting operations should merely present the opportunity for the target to either commit or resist.

Sting operations are a delicate matter. Many factors in a case could cast doubt on the fairness of the police officers’ setup. In these “catfish” cases, defendants need skilled legal guidance to double-check that the operation was fair from the start.

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