Sept. 4 – A bill that has sparked the interest of a local legislature aims to change a section of the criminal justice law that could make it easier to use evidence gathered by citizens who carry out online predator stings.
Should it succeed, however, a local self-proclaimed “predator catcher” with nearly 600 catches to his name doubts any more will take up his mantle.
“Not everyone has the guts to go out and do it,” says Luzerne County predator catcher Musa Harris.
Still, Harris said of the bill, “It’s good for me.”
Representative Jim Gregory, R-Blair, issued a memorandum on Aug. 25 seeking co-sponsors for a potential bill that would “give any individual the ability to impersonate a minor” and ban unlawful contact with the statute of minors to enforce.
Representative Jim Haddock, D-118, Pittston Twp., is one of the potential co-sponsors.
Haddock said input from the law enforcement community will be part of the legislative process.
He stressed that the purpose of the bill is to stop a crime before it is committed.
“We’re trying to protect kids,” Haddock said. “We are trying to alleviate a terrible situation before it happens.”
The criminal charge of unlawful contact with a minor specifically requires the suspect to communicate with an actual minor or a law enforcement officer posing as such.
“At a time when our law enforcement agencies are experiencing significant staff shortages and retention issues, law enforcement officers are often unable to dedicate the time and resources necessary to catch the multitude of predators who search the Internet for vulnerable children,” wrote Gregory in his memo. “By allowing an individual to impersonate a minor for the purpose of enforcing unlawful contact with a minor by statute, these predators are less likely to target and prey on children.”
Expanding the language beyond that would result in more potential “trap vigilantes,” said Lackawanna County chief defense attorney Larry Moran.
The legal community should oppose the proposal, as should law enforcement, he said.
“Effectively replacing people who feel on the spur of the moment that they are capable of righting an injustice is a very slippery slope. I don’t think anyone should get into that,” Moran said.
Several of Harris’s targets were actually prosecuted, primarily in Luzerne County.
Harris said prosecutors brought criminal charges against him alleging that suspects attempted unlawful contact.
Attempts to reach Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell and Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce were unsuccessful.
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