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Amateur child predator stings should be addressed by state, Pa. attorney says | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey


No one has sympathy for an adult looking to sexually assault a child.

Luzerne County attorney William Watt understands that. But he is asking for Pennsylvania’s highest court to weigh in on the rise of amateur child predator vigilantes who lure in adults online by acting as minors.

Amateur predator catchers operate in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, setting up their own sting operations, posting their in-person confrontations on social media, and handing the evidence to police. They’ve taken up the mantle of NBC’s popular, short-lived “To Catch a Predator” show, which was eventually canceled after lawsuits and at least one suicide.

Watt, who has represented men charged in vigilante stings, said some police departments and district attorneys prosecute the cases eagerly while others avoid them.

He’s seeking some uniformity in Pennsylvania..

“I want guidance, one way or the other,” Watt said. “We should all be playing on a level field.”

Earlier this month, Watt filed a rare “King’s Bench” petition to the state supreme court, asking it to use its jurisdiction over lower courts to weigh in on child predator vigilantism.

“The lack of appellate guidance on the legality of this conduct has resulted in a wide variety of results across the commonwealth,” Watt wrote. “Some counties are choosing to prosecute these cases, while others are not.”

The Inquirer reached out to a dozen district attorneys and prosecutors in Pennsylvania and New Jersey about the amateur stings. Most didn’t return requests for comment and others declined. In Dauphin County, District Attorney Francis T. Chardo said doesn’t have a fixed policy on amateur stings and looks at them on a case-by-case basis.

“They’re not ideal,” Chardo said. “It would be much easier to call the police and let our undercover offers handle the solicitation.”

Manuel Gamiz, a spokesman for Bucks County District Attorney Jennifer Schorn, said the office “discourages vigilantism because it can be unsafe for those engaging in it and can create dangerous situations that could put others at risk.” The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association’s executive director, Kelly Callihan, cited the “good intentions” of child predator catchers but said there’s “safety concerns about individuals confronting potential suspects and accusing them of crimes.”

“There are also potential legal and ethical problems with these types of vigilante cases that could jeopardize a court case,” Callihan said in an email.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office also discourages amateur predator stings, a spokesman said.

Watt, in his petition, noted that Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce prosecutes these cases “vigorously,” while in Clearfield County, District Attorney Ryan Sellers dismissed more than a dozen cases involving child predator catchers. Neither DA could be reached for comment but Sanguedolce, in an interview with WNEP-TV of Scranton, stood by his office’s cases.

“It is our position that a failed attempt to contact a minor for sex is criminal regardless of the fact that the perpetrator was talking to a parent, guardian, or other adult in lieu of a child,”Sanguedolce told the station. “I greatly look forward to the opportunity to argue our case to our Supreme Court.”

Jules Epstein, a law professor at Temple University, said King’s Bench petitions are rarely granted and he doubts Watt’s request would be any different. Leah Johnson, a professor of law at Rutgers-Camden and former public defender, said a “uniform rule” would be helpful, however.

“The concern I would have as a defense attorney is that you do not want a situation in which law enforcement is relying on citizens to enforce the law,” Johnson said. “If this becomes the norm, these people become an extension of the state.”

Several of the amateur, including Musa Harris, the Luzerne County Predator Catcher, did not return requests for comment. In a PennLive.com profile of Harris last year, the former New Jersey resident said he vowed to make a difference after leaving prison, and focused his efforts on child predators.

“I’d rather be locked up for murder than for molesting and that stuff,”Harris told the news outlet.

Donald Kizer, a Northumberland County man whose own sexual abuse inspired him to get involved in predator stings, said he wouldn’t change his tactics, regardless of the petition.

“I’m not going to let this discourage me from doing what I do,” he said in a message.

In August, one Pennsylvania lawmaker proposed legislation to actually make it legal for anyone to pose as a minor, believing it would help depleted law enforcement agencies and deter “the multitude of predators who prowl the internet for vulnerable children.” That legislation is currently sitting with the House Judiciary Committee.

Epstein, of Temple, said the alleged predators are ultimately responsible for their predicament.

“No adult should should have a conversation with a 13-year-old or an apparent 13-year-old that is sexual in nature,” he said.



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