How Florida Police Falsely Arrest & Shame Men As Child Sexual Predators, Steal Their Cars… Then Try To Hide The Records

from the for-the-children! dept

Eric Goldman calls our attention to a rather astounding story out of Florida, involving how various Florida police departments are engaging in what appears to be basically sham “sting” operations online to arrest and shame men as child sexual predators, then steal their cars (sometimes offering to sell them back), and then doing everything possible to hide the records. The whole thing is quite crazy, and I recommend reading the entire thing. It also comes as little surprise that one of the sheriffs deeply involved in this is Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd — who we’ve written about a few times before. Back in 2009 we wrote about Judd using Craigslist to find and arrest prostitutes… and then blaming Craigslist, the very tool he used to track down the lawbreakers. A year ago, Judd got a lot more attention for his plan to arrest parents of some girls who were accused of bullying another girl into committing suicide (though, eventually charges were dropped and almost no evidence of any bullying was found).

Those past stories fit with the same pattern that WTSP’s “10 Investigates” reporter Noah Pransky found in researching these stings. You know the basics of how these stings work, because they appear to be police-led versions of the famed “To Catch A Predator” TV show. But, quite frequently, the actual cases seem to involve the police going after men who were seeking adult companions, and then doing everything possible to try to convince them that they’re interested in minors:

In the case of a 27-year-old Cape Coral man, arrested during the Lee County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) sting this past May, deputies arrested him even though he didn’t even travel to meet a child for sex. Law enforcement officers responded to the man’s legal “casual encounters” Craigslist ad, pretending to be a 14-year-old girl, even though the ad said, “age for all women must be 18+ no one under email me plz.”

The man repeatedly told the undercover detectives that he was “not OK” with meeting up with an underage girl, but because he didn’t immediately end the conversation, he was arrested for utilizing his phone to solicit a sexual act from a child. Detectives went to his house and arrested him as a sexual predator of children.

Prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute on either of the accused charges, yet the accusations and man’s name remain on LCSO’s online press releases and other media outlets’ news stories.

Even in some cases where this cajoling and pushing by the police led someone to say OK, the details seem fairly questionable:

A 19-year-old man in Orange Co. was accused of soliciting the guardian of a 13-year-old decoy to arrange sex with her. But the evidence proved differently, as the man was merely responding to an innocuous ad from a 26-year-old woman, which was posted by law enforcement. The detective later tried to convince the man to have sex with the woman’s “younger sister,” even though he showed little interest.

According to notes from the prosecutor, “this is a tough case” because of “entrapment issues.” The man chatted with what he believed to be a 26-year-old woman for five days and the “Law Enforcement Officer suggest(ed) sex first on 2nd day.” The defendant said several times he wasn’t interested in the 13-year-old, even suggesting he bring a younger teenager boy for the girl when the detective kept bringing the teenager into the discussion. The prosecutor also noted the “law enforcement officer again suggests illegal sex 2 more times” but the defendant was non-committal.”

Ultimately, after hundreds of text messages, the man agreed to sex with both females, and was arrested upon arrival. The state declined to prosecute, but the accusations and man’s name remain public record.

As the report notes, many of these men are cleared or no charges are ever actually brought against them, but they’re still publicly shamed in press releases, declaring them child predators. To add insult to injury, the police often steal their cars, using questionable asset seizure laws:

Sex stings have become especially rich sources for seizures, since almost every man arrested is accused of traveling to seduce, solicit, or entice a child to commit a sexual act?even though no real children are ever involved in the stings. However, the accusations are felonies, meaning law enforcement can seize suspect’s vehicles, making it extremely difficult for them to ever get them back without paying thousands of dollars ? or more – in cash to the arresting agency.

For example, in one January 2014 sting where the Clearwater Police Department (CPD) and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) arrested 35 men in a single weekend, CPD seized 19 cars as their own under Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act.

And even when the people are cleared or charges are dropped, they often have to pay up to get their own cars back, if they can get them back at all:

One 24-year-old man, arrested in the January sting in Clearwater, had to pay $10,000 cash to get his 2014 Lexus returned. And even though all felony charges were later dropped in his case, he will not get the money back for either the negotiated settlement or the fees he paid an attorney to handle the vehicle case.

Grady Judd’s Polk County is also noted as seizing $15,900 from someone and then “negotiating” to give him back half of it and keeping the other half.

And, of course, the police who are engaged in all of this are also lying about the seriousness of “the problem” while doing everything they can to hide the real details from public view. The article quotes Judd again, insisting that men seeking children was a major problem in South Florida, but the actual evidence — obtained by WTSP — shows otherwise, with prosecutors quietly admitting that they have zero cases actually showing that happening.

In 2013, a prosecutor declined to pursue “traveler” charges against a man caught in an Osceola Co. sting because the “state tried to find evidence that the crime of solicitation of minor via computer (parent) was taking place?there are no known cases.”

The prosecutor notes the detective “asked ICAC affiliate + the FBI and was able to come up with about 5 examples Nationwide. None in Central FL.”

Another Osceola Co. prosecutor in the case of a 21-year-old defendant wrote, “biggest concern was entrapment argument b/c the LE Operation was not really addressing on-going criminal activity?There have been NO documented cases in this area of parents being solicited on-line for sex w/their minor children.”

But WTSP was only able to find this out via accessing court records — and not via public information requests.

10 Investigates has pushed to see other records from law enforcement officers responding to legal dating ads on legal dating sites, but almost every request has been refused. Often, public record exemptions are cited, ranging from “active investigation” to “confidential surveillance techniques,” but a Lee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said records from their June sting had already been destroyed by July.

Similarly, in a related report, WTSP quoted Judd blocking access to such records:

Judd says the records are exempt from state records laws because all of those men are still “under investigation,” for they may surface in future stings. However, that indicates Judd – and other law enforcement leaders around Tampa Bay and Sarasota who have now used the same exemption to withhold records – have active investigations open on hundreds, if not thousands, of men who did nothing more than legally communicate with adults on legal websites.

That same article notes that of the 1,200 men arrested as “sexual predators,” 97% have zero history of sexual crimes — and further notes how the police have no problem continuing to shame even men who are cleared:

The state’s best-known lawman also showed little concern for due process during a Tuesday press conference to tout arrests since March in predator-style stings. He pointed to 132 mugshots on a giant posterboard and called the men “sexual predators.”

But when 10 Investigates pointed out some of the men had already been cleared of charges, he said they were still fair game because “we have a very liberal – a very forgiving – criminal justice system.”

That system may give defendants the benefit of doubt and assume “innocent until proven guilty;” but Judd makes sure the mugshots and stigma of being arrested for a sex crime haunts the men for the rest of their lives.

That statement is fairly incredible, but it gives you some insight into the mindset of Judd and some others involved in these efforts. These people are guilty no matter what — and they will do anything to get them arrested, and then even once they are cleared of any charges, the police will continue to treat them as guilty.

None of this is to diminish the very horrific and tragic reality of situations that do involve actual sexual predators. Those people should be investigated and caught if possible. But what’s happening in Florida doesn’t seem to have anything to do with legitimately going after predators. Instead, it seems like a combination of entrapment, bogus online stings, high profile shaming of innocent people, stealing their property through asset seizure laws and then abusing public records laws to cover up the details.

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Comments on “How Florida Police Falsely Arrest & Shame Men As Child Sexual Predators, Steal Their Cars… Then Try To Hide The Records”

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72 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Making the problem worse

Remember all of this is self fulfilling prophecy.
Multiple things are achieved.
Pretty but false claims on reports that police are cleaning up crime.
Enraging the citizenry further giving them excuses to increase the level of violence in response, which of course only breeds more so militarization is easier to justify.
DA gets to pad their political resumes as the truly ignorant electorate eats it all up.
PD gets to steal from the citizenry for their slush funds and budgets.

There is far more going down with Ferguson and the like that the media and government will admit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Making the problem worse

believe me they do go after the,m if the person does not have a good atty praying for a miracle for an innocent young man who wasn’t looking fir a young girl, did not respond to an online ad, did not set up a time to see the decoy, blocked them from calling and did not travel anywhere but was arrested asnyway at his home the next day. Now labled a seccxuaskl predator by grady

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Making the problem worse

And it’s especially bad because the ‘sexual predator’ label of today is like the communist label of decades ago that used to ruin lives (see Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunts).

If you want to ruin someone’s life just falsely accuse them of being a sexual predator. Even if they’re proven innocent, their reputation will be ruined for life and they’ll be branded a sexual predator.

I read about one such cast with a pastor who was forced out of his church by similar false accusations. Someone in his congregation really wanted to get rid of him, so he called the cops and accused the pastor of having child pornography on his church laptop. The pastor did have child pornography on it, but only because the guy who reported it to the police emailed it to the pastor right before calling the police.

Even though the cops cleared the pastor of any wrong doing and arrested his accuser, it wasn’t enough to save the pastor’s reputation. His congregation turned against him and fired him.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Making the problem worse

This is a cultural problem, and a severe one. If people see someone being investigated or arrested for a crime, then people tend to believe they’re guilty even if the courts say otherwise.

For an easy example, look at all of the rental properties that won’t rent to anyone with an arrest record, period. They don’t care if the arrest led to a verdict of not guilty.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Making the problem worse

This is another symptom of the need to ‘show’ that a lot of criminals are being caught so ‘work’ is flowing fine. Fact is a good law enforcement eventually will lead to a bare minimum offenses because either all criminals are ailed/rehabilitated or the deterrence effect from good law enforcement practice is great enough that most criminals won’t carry on with their misdeeds at all. The bare minimum is there because crime will never reach zero because you’ll always have those that will carry on regardless of any other factors.

In the end this is double the shame for Florida: once because they are screwing up and targeting innocents and another one because they are actually failing in getting the number of crime occurrences down.

tumbleweed1962 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Making the problem worse

They have no intention of reducing arresr rates. It’s Big business. Even fabricated crimes bring federal funding, increased tax revenues, forfeiture property, and promotions. The fact that there are privately owned prisons tells you there’s money to be made. If they cared about the public that time and money would be spent on sites where minors actually are located but the very fact that they have 0 cases of actual solicitation proves they Must show their worth to keep their jobs. Real or fabricated matters not to them.

Stephen Samuel (profile) says:

Re: Making the problem worse - Libel

If people have been cleared, and the police are still telling the public that they’re sex predators, then those people have good reason to sue the police department for slander an libel.

(( If it’s a credible case but the evidence is just too week for ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, though, remember that losing such a case could provide some really bad publicity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Turn about

Seems like posting giant billboards with the police who are behind this and list them as sex offenders would be perfectly fine. The “very liberal – a very forgiving – criminal justice system.” seems to be only forgiving and liberal in one direction. If they don’t have a problem with libel and slander though, go to it. I will gladly contribute towards any funds that make this a reality.

Anonymous Coward says:

I know someone who’s been fighting this (in Florida) for 4 years. He has multiple emails sent to friends, facebook conversations, etc saying “Hey I’m messing with a cop who thinks I’m an idiot” sent weeks before his arrest. The prosecutor won’t drop the charges. They did seize his house, his car, etc. Luckily his wife is really understand….oh no wait she left him after having his face plastered all over the news as a sex offender. Luckily he’s wealthy enough to fight the charges.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In all fairness to your friend’s ex-wife, the modus operandi of these guys seems to be “find a guy advertising that he’s looking for a woman to have sex with and try and badger him into agreeing to have sex with a minor”, or “advertise as a woman looking for a man to have sex with, and try and badger men who respond into having sex with a minor”.

Given that, it would be a really tough sell to convince the wife that he totally wasn’t looking for women to cheat on her with, he was just looking for some cops to figuratively fuck around with.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If the cops find your smartphone, then you just remotely wipe your phone, so they cannot get any information from it.

First, you go to where the GPS says your phone is. If it is not the impound yard, then you know the cops have found your phone, then you just log into your favourite find-my-android or find-my-iPhone site and immediately send a remote wipe so that all data in your phone is wiped, and cannot be used by investigators

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

And then they charge you for destruction of evidence. ‘What evidence?’ you may say, but clearly if you wiped your phone it could only be because it had the absolutely worst of the worst on it, and they just hadn’t gotten around to copying it over for analysis yet.

Remember, we’re talking about scum that are ruining people’s lives for money and laughs, they would have no problem doing the same to someone that annoyed them.

David says:

Re: Re: Re:

The DOJ is in for half of the money if I remember correctly. It’s not in their interest to hold up the law.

Let me repeat this for you: It is not in the interest of the Department of “Justice” to hold up the law.

The problem with that is that the U.S. is the stronghold of capitalism where any crime is justified if the price is right.

For that reason it would be the job of Congress to make sure that the Department of Justice does no longer profit from police criminality.

ottermaton (profile) says:

A rather astounding story out of Florida?

First line reads:
“… a rather astounding story out of Florida.”
Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron? Personally, I haven’t been astounded by anything that happens in Florida in years, ever since that time I was attacked and mugged by a guy armed with a tricycle. No, I’m not making that up.

Todd Metcalfe says:

There seem to be some predators alright

So essentially the police are inflicting undue and unwarranted fear onto children and their parents through their own irresponsible (to put it nicely) activities — and probably causing an enormous amount of fear and distress for the children and spouses of the falsely accused, as well as for their neighbors, friends, and others close to them.

So who exactly are the real predators here?

amoshias (profile) says:

I feel like you're missing the point...

Mike, I feel like you’re missing the point when you write, at the end, that Judd and others still think they’re guilty even after they’re cleared of all charges. I think even that seemingly-damning statement relieves Judd of the worst part of this.

He knows damn well the people involved aren’t guilty, and doesn’t care. Innocence, guilt, protecting the public are nowhere on his radar. This abuse gets him three things. Fame, money, reputation. Of course, he has to put up the front that people are guilty – but no sane person could believe that’s what’s happening here. He’s ruining people’s lives for his personal benefit; he’s a psychopath, and like so many instead of being put away he’s put in a position of power.

Anon E. Mous (profile) says:

Robbery, coercion, extorsion…. Those would be some of the charges if you were pulling this scam by yourself or with a couple other people.

If you weren’t a police officer, you’d be sitting in a cell rattling the bars to pass the time till you got bailed out or till your trial.

Apparently if you a police officer, you can do those three things legally, and get away with it.

And the Law Enforcement community wonders why the people don’t entirely believe they are there to help them and you can trust them

any moose cow word says:

If I’d personally encountered this, I’d do what’s “proper” in such situations–record the entire interaction and inform the FBI of “child prostitution”. It would test whether or not the FBI still investigates these cases and possibly make some interesting headlines about FBI agents busting a local police sting.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Hope you like being blackmailed by the FBI for your ‘involvement’ in ‘child’ prostitution.

The ‘proper’ response these days isn’t to tell a government agency, it’s to drop the conversation and block them if they’re persistent. Reporting it to a government agency or the police is just asking for trouble, much like calling the cops will pretty much always make a bad situation worse.

Catching actual criminals is hard work, and the government and/or police have no interest in anything that takes effort, so reporting anything to them is just giving them an easy target to go after: You.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Crimes against humanity

“Law enforcement is set up to keep the laws from being broken or punish those who are breaking them.”

The police are absolutely not there to punish anybody at all. The police are there to investigate crimes and bring suspects to court. It’s the court’s job to determine guilt or innocence and to mete out any punishment.

Eric Knight (user link) says:

Charge and Indict the Entrampment officers

If the cops themselves are the ones who first bring up the children, fake or not, they ought to be indictable as well. Strictly speaking, THEIR liabilty is greater as they are the ones who OFFERED such children. The way to do this is to go to a FEDERAL agency to pursue such charges, particuarly if you are out of state to the sting itself.

tumbleweed1962 (profile) says:

Re: Charge and Indict the Entrampment officers

They have written the to allow a charge of soliciting and or illegal use of electronic equipment for those that might have considered it for a moment but declined in the end. So Thought Crime is real in the 21st century. George Orwell missed it by a few years but his Book "1984" predicted much of what is happening today. If a person wins a case or an appeal they change or make new laws to cover that. Wanna see corruption? Just look to our political and legal systems.

George says:

Perverted "law enforcement"

Things like this would not occur if the public did not support it. The only thing that will stop it is law suits that cost millions & bankrupt the public. Of course, the next move would be to make the law suits illegal, —or have law enforcement try their own cases, which is basically what is taking place now with some of the judges in whose court these cases are tried.

VICKI says:

POLK COUNTY DETECTIVES

GRADY JUDD THINKS EVERYONE IS GUILTY OF SOMETHING.HE GOES ON LIVE TV AND DOWNGRADES PEOPLE AND CALLS THEM ALL KINDS OF NAMES.WHY IS HE NOT IN JAIL FOR PUTTING KIDS IN ADULT JAILS.ISNT THAT ABUSE.INMATES ARE NEGLETED MEDICALLY ESPECIALLY DISABLED INMATES.HE THINKS IT HAS TO BE HIS WAY OR NO WAY.HELP THE ONES WHO NEED HELP GIVE THEM A SECOND CHANCE GOD KNOWS GRADY JUDD HAS BEEN GIVEN PLENTY OF SECOND CHANCES

Charlotte Crittrn says:

Neglected To arrest Johnathon Harvey

Reported Harvey assualted 13 year on 5 different occasions and was never arrested. Child advocate group located in Bartow and DCF said without a shadow of doubt Mr. Harvey violated this 13 year little girl and he still is walking the streets today. They were also made aware that other family members of Harvey had been touched when they were small children also. They never even tried to contact the other victims to ask them of the incidents. They moved from Lakeland, Fl to get away from this man and now DCF had-removed two children from Lakeland and moved them out of state. Why does he still walk the streets where the kids had to leave the home they ever known. Grady Judd is a joke especially when he says their is no tolerance in my county! Especially in your county!!!

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