House panel considers bill to strengthen Internet stings


Proposed changes to the Maryland statute used to prosecute adults who use the Internet to arrange sexual liaisons with children would help quell a legal debate over whether the law applies when no minor is involved, state officials told members of a House committee last night.

Defense attorneys have argued with some success in court that when an adult investigator is posing as a potential victim, no crime has been committed.

That argument has led to at least one high-profile dismissal of charges, the officials told members of the House Judiciary Committee.

"We need a law that will protect our children by allowing us to play the role of minor," said Lt. Barry E. Leese, who heads the computer crimes unit for the Maryland State Police.

State prosecutors continue to argue that the law applies to real child victims and to cases where adult investigators pose as children. But they hope to close a potential loophole by spelling out the prohibition against using the Internet to approach someone "believed by a person [defendant] to be a minor" for sex, said Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Grill Graeff, the chief of the criminal appeals division.

"We're just trying to make it clear so there's no ambiguity," she said after the hearing.

Last night, members did not vote on the bill, a version of which was first introduced in 2000.

This year's bill is the latest incarnation in state officials' repeated attempts to clarify and tighten laws that target sexual predators who use the Internet, as investigators continue to conduct online stings to set up dates and file charges against defendants.

An effort to pass a similar bill last year failed after lawmakers said they wanted to wait for the state's highest court, which was hearing an appeal on the issue, to weigh in. That appeal, in the case of New Jersey resident Donald Taylor, left the issue unresolved after judges ruled last year on a technicality instead of on the merits of the law. An appeal in a second case is pending before the Court of Special Appeals.

"We are making great strides, but Maryland has not been able to push this law past the committee so we can arrest individuals," Leese said.

Maryland's statute does not make the distinction between fictitious and real victims, making it a crime to solicit a "minor."

Some defense attorneys across the state have used that wording to challenge charges filed in Internet stings, saying that because their clients were corresponding with adult police officers, they couldn't have committed a crime even if they wanted to.

"There's a loophole in this law," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and one of the bill's sponsors.

With the uncertainty, some judges are delaying rulings while they wait to see what the appellate courts and the legislature will do, Graeff told committee members.

"We need to protect our children from cyber as well as actual sexual abuse," she said.

The bill, which has also been introduced in the state Senate, also adds specific sexual offenses that would be the result of online communication and details which courts have jurisdiction in such cases -- a distinction that would allow state police to handle all cases from a "central location," Leese said.

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