Maryland's highest court is considering a case that could put an end to the stings used by Maryland State Police and prosecutors to apprehend and convict men who seek sex with teen-agers met on the Internet.
Questions over the stings' legality stem from a Frederick County case in which a judge ruled that there was no crime because there was no child victim - only police officers posing as teen-age girls.
Frederick Circuit Judge Mary Ann Stepler dismissed charges in August 2000 against Donald Taylor Jr., then 44, of Camden, N.J. Police accused Taylor of traveling to Frederick in October 1999 to meet a fictitious 15-year-old girl named "Stephanie." When Taylor went to meet "Stephanie" at a pizza parlor, he was arrested in the parking lot, police said.
Stepler agreed with the defense's argument that no crime was committed because "Stephanie" was an adult police officer and it is legal for two adults to meet this way.
Frederick prosecutors appealed, and now the Maryland Court of Appeals faces this question: Can a person be convicted of attempted unlawful sexual conduct with an undercover police officer via computer transmissions?
"This is a huge case," said Frederick County Deputy State's Attorney J. Charles Smith III. A ruling could come any day.
Stephen M. Harris, the assistant public defender who won a pretrial dismissal of the charges - despite Taylor's confession - said, "The state had charged him with a crime that he legally could not have committed."
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who argued part of the appeal before the high court in May, said, "Our argument is, it was not a legal impossibility: It was a factual impossibility. He intended to have illegal sexual activity with a young girl."
Curran expects the court to back the Frederick prosecutors. But if the court rules against the state, he plans to seek legislation to remedy the question of the fictitious victim.
Such legislation has failed before. Del. Sue Hecht, a Frederick Democrat, has introduced bills in the last two General Assembly sessions that would allow the conviction of a suspected sexual predator even if a police officer posed as a child. The bills died in committee.
"Until they wrap this court case up, nobody's going to back it," Hecht said of her proposal, "which is too bad, because the abuse continues. Predators are very creative in finding ways of accessing our children, and that's what this piece of legislation would do: criminalize an act of traveling for the purpose of committing a crime."
Under her bills, Hecht said, "what matters would be their intention - so it doesn't matter whether a trooper is waiting instead of a kid."
Until the court ruling is announced, police at Maryland's Computer Crimes Unit in Columbia say they will continue to pose as children on the Internet and arrest the adults meeting them for sex. This month, two men were charged in stings that ended at a Finksburg fast-food restaurant. Wednesday, police from the unit charged a third man in Carroll County.
The unit has made 30 arrests, filing charges under a computer crimes statute and those pertaining to attempted sexual offenses. About half of the cases have been resolved, many with guilty pleas, said Lt. Barry E. Leese, commander of the unit, which began in January 2000 with a $300,000 federal grant.
Police call suspects in these stings "travelers," men prowling Internet chat rooms looking for children of a certain age and arranging to meet them for sex. Many travelers, once they meet a child in person, take photographs, at first as a personal memento but eventually to be displayed on the Web, police said.
In the recent cases, police in less than 24 hours arrested two men who came to the parking lot of a restaurant in Carroll, after Internet conversations with officers posing as 13-year-old girls. The men wanted to have oral sex with the girls, according to charging documents.
If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine under Maryland laws regarding use of a computer to solicit unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.
Nationally, there were more than 900 such cases last year as of December, says Sgt. Andrew G. Russell, a 23-year veteran of the Connecticut State Police and chairman of a federal program that tracks Internet crimes involving children.
He noted a study for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that questioned 1,501 children who were regular Internet users, and found one in five had received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year while using the Internet or sending e-mail.
Few youths reported these contacts to police, or even to parents, he said. Only 18 percent of the most serious contacts were reported, and those were primarily to Internet service providers.
That's one reason why police say it is necessary to pose as teen-agers.
"If you are a predator, why would you take the chance of hanging around a school yard? Here you could go to a virtually limitless target population on the computer. You can be anonymous," Russell said.
Stings are invaluable to protect children, says Reuben D. Rodriguez Jr., of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.
"The problem is, people don't understand the enormity of the problem. It's growing by leaps and bounds. As the Internet expands and grows, so does the number of individuals who don't have the best interests of children at heart, who prey upon children. They exploit the technology in an effort to snare children," he said.