Austin Criminal Defense Blog
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Austin Sex Crimes Lawyer Charles Johnson aggressively defends clients charged with a sexual offense. He handles all sexual offense charges, whether in state or federal court, and whether the sex crime allegations are against children or adults. These charges include:
- Production of child pornography
- Distribution of child pornography
- Possession of child pornography
- Use of child pornography
- Sexual assault
- Sex with a minor
Parties in contentious divorce or custody proceedings have been known to encourage children to say the other parent “touched” them a certain way or otherwise imply molestation. Child care workers, pastors, teachers, coaches, and others are frequently falsely accused. Parents have even been known to target individuals for extortion by coaching children. They may be coached by well-meaning social service and health care professionals, law enforcement officers, and prosecuting attorneys who want to make sure they obtain a conviction regardless of the truth.
Allegations of sex crimes are taken very seriously in Texas, and across the nation. With more stringent penalties being imposed, a false claim unchallenged or a single error in judgment can require you to be a lifelong member of the sex offenders’ registry and database. Before your reputation is devastated, invoke your right to an attorney and your right to remain silent. Contact Austin Criminal Lawyer Charles Johnson for a free phone consultation when you are under investigation for sex crimes or if charges have been brought against you for anything from possession and distribution of child pornography to sexual assault and rape. Attorney Johnson can be reached personally around the clock, 365 days/year at 512-832-1200.
How is Child Pornography Defined?
Federal and state laws make it a crime to produce, possess, distribute, or sell pornographic materials that exploit or portray a minor. Increasingly, child pornography laws are being utilized to punish use of computer technology and the Internet to obtain, share, and distribute pornographic material involving children, including images and films.
Under federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256), child pornography is defined as any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer-generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, of sexually explicit conduct, where
- the production of the visual depiction involves the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; or
- the visual depiction is a digital image, computer image, or computer-generated image that is, or is indistinguishable from, that of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; or
- the visual depiction has been created, adapted, or modified to appear that an identifiable minor is engaging in sexually explicit conduct.Federal law (18 U.S.C. §1466A) also criminalizes knowingly producing, distributing, receiving, or possessing with intent to distribute, a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture or painting, that
- depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct and is obscene, or
- depicts an image that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex and such depiction lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Sexually explicit conduct is defined under federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256) as actual or simulated sexual intercourse (including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex), bestiality, masturbation, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person.
Who Is a Minor?
For purposes of enforcing the federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256), “minor” is defined as a person under the age of 18.
Is Child Pornography a Crime?
Yes, it is a federal crime to knowingly possess, manufacture, distribute, or access with intent to view child pornography (18 U.S.C. §2252). In addition, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws criminalizing the possession, manufacture, and distribution of child pornography. As a result, a person who violates these laws may face federal and/or state charges.
Where Is Child Pornography Predominantly Found?
Child pornography exists in multiple formats including print media, videotape, film, CD-ROM, or DVD. It is transmitted on various platforms within the Internet including newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat (chatrooms), Instant Message, File Transfer Protocol, e-mail, websites, and peer-to-peer technology.
What Motivates People Who Possess Child Pornography?
Limited research about the motivations of people who possess child pornography suggests that child pornography possessors are a diverse group, including people who are
- sexually interested in prepubescent children or young adolescents, who use child pornography for sexual fantasy and gratification
- sexually “indiscriminate,” meaning they are constantly looking for new and different sexual stimuli
- sexually curious, downloading a few images to satisfy that curiosity
- interested in profiting financially by selling images or setting up web sites requiring payment for access
Who Possesses Child Pornography?
It is difficult to describe a “typical” child pornography possessor because there is not just one type of person who commits this crime.
In a study of 1,713 people arrested for the possession of child pornography in a 1-year period, the possessors ran the gamut in terms of income, education level, marital status, and age. Virtually all of those who were arrested were men, 91% were white, and most were unmarried at the time of their crime, either because they had never married (41%) or because they were separated, divorced, or widowed (21%).3
Forty percent (40%) of those arrested were “dual offenders,” who sexually victimized children and possessed child pornography, with both crimes discovered in the same investigation. An additional 15% were dual offenders who attempted to sexually victimize children by soliciting undercover investigators who posed online as minors.4
Who Produces Child Pornography?
Based on information provided by law enforcement to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Child Victim Identification Program, more than half of the child victims were abused by someone who had legitimate access to them such as parents, other relatives, neighborhood/family friends, babysitters, and coaches.
What is the Nature of These Images?
The content in these illegal images varies from exposure of genitalia to graphic sexual abuse, such as penetration by objects, anal penetration, and bestiality.
Of the child pornography victims identified by law enforcement, 42% appear to be pubescent, 52% appear to be prepubescent, and 6% appear to be infants or toddlers.
Possible Punishment for Sexual Exploitation of a Minor/Child Pornography
If the photographs include children who are fourteen (14) years of age or younger, it is a Dangerous Crimes Against Children (DCAC) and carries a very severe penalty. A first offense carries the following punishment for each and every conviction: ten (10) years minimum in prison; seventeen (17) years presumptive in prison; twenty-four (24) years maximum incarceration.
If convicted of one previous predicate felony (which includes a prior DCAC, among other serious felonies), the range of punishment increases to a minimum twenty-one (21) years, presumptive twenty-eight years (28), and maximum thirty-five (35) years. Because this is a DCAC, 100% of the prison time must be served before being eligible for release. In addition, if the person is convicted of two (2) counts, they must be run consecutive to each other (i.e., the minimum is now twenty (20) years in prison, and all other ranges double). This is why these charges are sometimes referred to as “life enders”.
The maximum penalty on a Sexual Exploitation charge actually carries more time than the maximum penalty on a Second Degree Murder charge. A conviction will require you to register as a Sex Offender for the rest of your life, and you are not allowed to have any contact with anyone under the age of eighteen (18) (this includes your own children), without going through numerous testing procedures and only with the consent of your Probation Officer.
If the child was ages fifteen – seventeen (15-17), it is not sentenced pursuant to the DCAC statute. A first offense class two (2) felony, carries punishment of probation with zero (0) days in jail up to one (1) year in jail, or prison of three (3) years to twelve and one half (12.5) years of incarceration. If the person has one (1) allegeable historical prior conviction, then the “prison only” range is four and one half (4.5) years to twenty-three and one quarter (23.25) years in prison. If the person has two (2) allegeable historical prior convictions, then the “prison only” range is ten and one half (10.5) to thirty-five (35) years of incarceration.
Possible Defenses for Sexual Exploitation of a Minor/Child Pornography
The critical defenses to Child Porn charges involve showing that the person did not “knowingly” possess, receive, or do any of the listed actions with the images. One way of asserting this defense is by presenting evidence that the defendant was not the person who accessed the images. If it can be shown that there were multiple users who had access to the computer, and who did in fact use the computer often, then it is much more difficult for the State to prove the defendant actually accessed the images, rather than some other person. This defense is especially appropriate when the defendant lacks any other sexual crime convictions. In order to assert this defense, we need to present a variety of our own evidence to contradict whatever has been presented by the prosecution. Typically, the State would normally have executed a search warrant and confiscated the computer involved, then searched for the “IP address” and passwords that were used to trace the activates to a particular time, date, and user. Before they do any of this they will have “cloned” the hard drive in order to avoid any accusations that they have somehow tampered with the computer by adding images.
Another typical defense is that the defendant inadvertently came across the images on his computer, and thus it was not a “knowing” exchange. It is an affirmative defense to Child Pornography charges if a person timely reports that they have received unsolicited images on their computer. Usually, reporting within three (3) days of discovering the child pornography is considered to be “timely reporting.”
At the Charles Johnson Law Firm, we handle a very high percentage of “Sex Crimes” cases. We have one of the largest libraries with research materials devoted to challenging accusations involving sex crimes. Registering as Sex Offender has drastic consequences and leaves a black mark on your record; do not underestimate the potential severity of this charge.
Additionally, because our law firm fights conviction from all angles, we would assert a wide range of defenses and challenges to constitutional violations that apply in all criminal cases. The possibilities are numerous and diverse. One of those we frequently assert is a “Miranda rights violation.” In Texas, the standard of whether any incriminating statement (i.e., a statement which tends to admit guilt) is admissible into evidence is based upon a “voluntariness” standard. If we can demonstrate that the police coerced you (i.e., intimidated or tricked you) into making a confession or inculpatory statement, or that they did not properly read you your Miranda Rights, then we can suppress those statements and any evidence gathered as a direct result of those statements.
In addition, the “denial of right to Counsel” is another common defense which is often raised. This occurs when a suspect is in custody and requests to speak to their attorney, but is denied and questioning continues. Other defenses may include challenging the validity of any search warrant, or whether there were any “forensic flaws” during the investigation of your case. Depending on what else you have been charged with, this could include exposing flawed procedures regarding blood, breath, and urine testing; fingerprints analysis; DNA testing; computer analysis/cloning hard drive procedures; forensic financial accounting reviews; etc. Lastly, one of the most common defense tactics is exposing sloppy or misleading police reports which include everything from misstatements, false statements, flawed photo line-ups and inaccurate crime scene reconstruction. It is important to hire a skilled lawyer to defend you who has knowledge of all the possible defenses to assert in your case.
Do Not Make Statements. Obviously, the best defense begins before a defendant is ever charged. Often, in a misguided attempt to help law enforcement, defendants make statements that are twisted and turned into prosecutorial evidence. It is important to remember not to allow yourself be interviewed government agencies without an attorney present.
Any interview will be sent to the police and the county attorney’s office and can be used against you. An obvious corollary is do not let yourself be interviewed again by the police without your attorney present.
Computerized Evidence. Internet child pornography is a growing offense across the nation. Often files can be downloaded to a computer without the user knowing the content of the download. In such cases the electronic file will often include tell tale electronic evidence about the file, where it came from and its date of download. Using this evidence or challenging law enforcement’s sloppy investigation and acquisition of potentially exculpatory information is the best way for a defense lawyer to prove actual innocence.
Examine Prosecution Expert’s Background. An important part of every case is the ability to counter the reports and testimony of computer professionals, caseworkers and “experts” who examine pornographic evidence. To effectively counter a prosecution expert, the defense attorney must be well educated on the expert’s education, work history, published works and testimony in prior cases.
Use a Polygraph. When it is advantageous to the defense against a sexual assault, defense attorneys should obtain a credible polygraph examination from a respected professionals.
Texas Sex Offender Registration
In addition to the prison terms and fines one can face when convicted of any of these offenses, you may be required to register as a sex offender. This means you will be tracked for the rest of your life.
Knowing where to turn when facing charges as dark as these can be difficult. You have likely already seen people turn their backs on you because of the charges and you haven’t even gone to trial. You need someone in your corner fighting for your good name.
You are innocent until proven guilty. With my help we will see to it that you get the best possible results on your day in court.
Austin Child Pornography Defense Lawyer: The Charles Johnson Law Firm
Attorney Charles Johnson defends against sexual assault allegations throughout Texas, no matter how small or large the city. He has developed a unique understanding of the dynamics of these very serious cases. His competent, aggressive and thorough representation has made him a leading criminal defense attorney in dealing with sex and pornography related criminal charges.
Defending in these areas is a very specialized area of criminal defense. Unfortunately, the very accusations themselves are often treated as conclusive proof of criminal activity. If Austin Lawyer Charles Johnson is retained at an early stage in the investigation, he is sometimes able to avoid charges altogether. At a minimum he is often able to avoid the trauma and embarrassment of his client being arrested at home or at the workplace by contacting law enforcement and the court in order to make the necessary arrangements.
Depending on the facts of your case and the evidence against you, Austin Child Pornography Lawyer Charles Johnson will work to help you beat a false accusation or try to lessen the punishment. We understand your freedom is at stake and that a conviction of possession of child pornography may result in lifetime registration as a sex offender. To protect your rights and liberty, we conduct thorough investigations to prepare for trial or to minimize the consequences or sentence.
Austin Sex Crimes Lawyer Charles Johnson can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Call us at 512-832-1200 or toll free at 877-308-0100.
Major Credit Cards Accepted.
Download “Defending Charges of Child Pornography: You Can Depend On Austin Sex Crimes Lawyer Charles Johnson” in PDF Format
News Stories Related to Child Pornography Arrests in Austin:
No bail in child porn case for man accused of filming victims
They arrested him the next day. He is charged with producing child pornography. Sawyer appeared Friday before Magistrate Judge Randolph Treece, who appointed Assistant Federal Public Defender Timothy Austin to be his attorney. Sawyer waived having a ...
Times Union - Apr 18 2014
Austin dentist Dr. Michael McCarty busted for child porn
Austin dentist Dr. Michael McCarty has been arrested after authorities found child pornography at his home and office, the Texas Attorney General’s Office said March 4. The investigation started after the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children ...
Examiner - Mar 03 2011
Austin dentist arrested, charged with possession of child porn
An Austin dentist is in custody and charged with possession of child pornography, a third degree felony. Dr. Michael Paul McCarty, 64, owns Austin Smiles Dentistry located just south of Far West on MoPac. On several different occasions police say the ...
KENS 5 - Mar 04 2011
Former Fraser teacher arrested on child pornography charges
Austin came under the federal government’s radar following his March 19 arrest by Roseville police for his alleged ... his cell phone and discovered numerous images of suspected child pornography. Detectives also found inappropriate, non-pornographic ...
Detroit Free Press - May 14 2012
Austin man arrested on child porn charges
AUSTIN -- An Austin man faces multiple child pornography charges after explicit pictures of children were found on his electronic devices. Rene Delacruz, 31, was arrested Wednesday after a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited children.
KVUE - Feb 25 2013
Charles Johnson |
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As a result of the increased efforts of local and national law enforcement task forces to discover Online Solicitation of Minors or Importuning, Austin Online Sex Crimes Lawyer Charles Johnson has frequently represented people who have been charged with communicating with a minor while using their personal computer. The truth is, regulations in many jurisdictions allow for a police officer to pose as an underage person while communicating with a suspect. Soliciting either an actual minor or a law enforcement officer pretending to be a minor may lead to the filing of charges and subsequent criminal prosecution. A frequent misconception is that no criminal offense is committed unless there is a physical meeting. In fact, the offense of On-line Solicitation or “Importuning” can be completed purely through the communication or “chat.” Should there be an attempt to actually get together, additional criminal charges may be warranted.
Austin Criminal Lawyer Charles Johnson is well-versed in the various defenses that must be explored in all cases of this kind. These defenses may include issues of entrapment, client knowledge, or jurisdictional questions.
Accusation of soliciting a minor online can often result from entrapment-type situations commonly depicted on televisions shows. However, soliciting a minor online can also be the result of a mistake or an accident. For example, an individual can be charged with soliciting a minor when they thought they were communicating with an adult on the computer, but may have actually been talking to an underage person. No matter the reason for the false claims against you, it is important to contact an experienced sex crimes defense lawyer who will make every effort to find defenses or other mitigating factors that will result in an acquittal of the charges against you.
An allegation of On-line Solicitation or Importuning calls for great effort and resources, as the stakes are high – one faces not only a potential prison term, but also the stigmatizing and debilitating effects of sex offender public registration, which makes it difficult if not impossible to obtain employment, and may even severely restrict one’s ability to reside in certain locations.
Jurors are often familiar with programs like “To Catch a Predator”, giving them preconceived notions which need to be addressed and diffused. Our lawyers know first-hand that with thoughtful and extensive examination of pertinent case law and pre-trial motions, a successful defense of On-line Solicitation and Importuning allegations can be achieved.
It is important to remember that if you have been accused of soliciting a minor online, the state prosecutor is required to prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. This can be a very difficult burden of proof to meet, and any doubt in the mind of the judge or jury can result in a dismissal or reduction of the charges against you. Therefore, it is essential to contact an experienced Child Sex Abuse lawyer to help you begin developing the best legal defense for your particular case. Contact Austin Criminal Lawyer Charles Johnson for a free consultation today at 512-832-1200 anytime, night or day if you have been falsely accused of soliciting a minor online.
Online Solicitation of a Minor Defined
Since the 1990′s, the internet has changed the way we communicate, do business, meet people, and almost all other aspects of our lives. Unfortunately, it has also led to new criminal charges, many of which carry steep penalties. The most severe online offenses are those related to the potential harm of an underage person, such as online solicitation of a minor.
Online solicitation of a minor is communication with a minor via the internet that aims to arouse, sexually gratify, harass, or arrange to meet a minor face-to-face in the real world. In Texas, a minor is any person who is 17 years of age or younger. Exchanging sexually oriented materials, conversations, or invitations with a minor is a serious legal offense in our state.
Sexual exploitation can result in numerous physical and psychological consequences for children that may be multiplied for victims of child pornography because they face a lifetime of possible revictimization through the continued distribution of videos, photographs, or computer images depicting their exploitation (Klain, 2001). The mass media continues to feed into the stereotype that all Internet offenders are “predators” or “pedophiles”. According to ABC World News Tonight in June 2006, there are approximately 563,000 registered sex offenders nationally. However, decades of research indicates that only ten percent (10%) of sex offenders are truly predatory in nature.
This is not to discount that Internet victimization is one of the most dangerous Internet threats, but society must be cautious in using such characteristics without empirical data to support such a homogenous label. In the National Juvenile Online Victimization (N-JOV) study, approximately seventy-eight percent (78%) of cases, the offender was one of the victim’s family members, second generation family member such as grandparents, uncle or aunt, or stepparents or parent’s intimate partner.
Children exploring the Internet for education and entertainment are at risk of encountering sexually explicit material, sexual exploitation, and Internet offenses while remaining undetected by parents. The Internet has become a conduit for sexually explicit material and offenses against children. Children are extremely vulnerable to victimization due to their curiosity, naiveté, and trusting nature. These crimes present law enforcement with many complex problems due to the fact that they transcend jurisdictional boundaries and often involve multiple victims in multiple states and countries. Internet crimes must be pursued vigorously by law enforcement.
The greatest obstacle facing law enforcement is that children and parents do not report the majority of Internet crimes. In situations where the abuse is a parent, a relative, or acquaintance, the abuse may be more likely to come to light inadvertently as a result of inquiries by social welfare and reports from neighbors, rather than as a result of police inquiries into online crime (Wolak, 2005, in press). Community involvement, parental supervision, and early intervention and prevention programs on Internet safety are essential in protecting children from online solicitation and exposure to pornography.
The computer age presents complex challenges for law enforcement, victim services, parents, legislators, and the community. The proliferation of computer technology obviously has enhanced our lives in many ways, such as enabling improved productivity and efficiency at work, school, and home (U.S. Department of Justice, 2001). Unfortunately, this technology is not without potential threats and harm for criminals to prey upon innocent victims. According to ABC World News Tonight in June 2006, there are approximately 563,000 registered sex offenders nationally. End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (EPCAT) International reports violence and harms against children and young people in cyberspace include: the production, distribution, and use of materials depicting child sexual abuse; online solicitation; exposure to materials that can cause psychological harm, lead to physical harm, or facilitate other detriments to a child; and harassment and intimidation.
Today the Internet has approximately two hundred (200) million users worldwide who can communicate with each other. Children of all ages are browsing the Internet. Forty-five (45%) of children in the United States, more than thirty (30) million of whom are younger than eighteen (18) use the Internet. By 2005, it was estimated that there are seventy-seven (77) million children online. Approximately one hundred three (103) million people use instant messaging (IM) programs such as AOL’s AIM, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, and others. MySpace.com reports more than eighty-five (85) million members and the number of visitors to MySpace went from 4.9 million in 2005 to currently over sixty-seven (67) million. Like most new technological developments, this brings both positive and negative implications, especially for parents and their children.
Some children are especially at risk due to a range of vulnerability-enhancing factors common to all environments. They are in socially and economically difficult situations, have experienced sexual abuse and exploitation, are lonely, or feel alienated from their parents. Others have low self-esteem, feel awkward, are confused about their personal identity and sexuality, and lack confidence. Gender is also seen to be a risk factor, with seemingly more girls than boys appearing to be harmed through cyberspace interactions (although boys are increasingly featured in pornographic images circulating online).
Demographics of an Internet Offender
Sex offenders and child pornographers are a heterogeneous mixture. Before the advent of the Internet, between one-fifth and one-third of people arrested for possession of child pornography were also involved in actual abuse. The majority are male and come from all socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Many are skilled in technology. Not all fit the clinical classification of “pedophilia”. The mass media continues to feed into the stereotype that all Internet offenders are “predators” or “pedophiles”. This is not to discount that Internet victimization is one of the most dangerous Internet threats but society must be cautious in using such characteristics without empirical data to support such a homogenous label. We have to remember that in a previous generation, campaigns to prevent child molestation characterized the threat as “playground predator” or “stranger danger” so that for years the problem of youth, acquaintance, and intra-family perpetrators went unrecognized.
In an analysis of 600 cases of child sexual abuse in which the Internet played a role, either the offender- victim relationship was initiated or conducted online, the case involved the online sharing or distribution of child pornography, or the case involved child pornography stored on a computer or digital media. One hundred twenty six (126) cases involved a face-to-face relationship between the offender and the victim prior to any use of the Internet in committing abuse. N-JOV data indicated that the Internet was involved in eighteen percent (18%) of all sex crimes against minors and that nearly half of the eighteen percent (18%) were committed by acquaintances or family members, with a total of at least 460 arrests a year. This study found ninety-five percent (95%) were non-Hispanic Caucasians and forty-seven percent (47%) were twenty-six (26) or older. Thirty-five percent (35%) were married and over a third lived in small towns. Eighty percent (80%) were employed full time and fifty-one percent (51%) had incomes ranging from $20,000-$50,000 per year.
Identifying Internet Offenders
There is no one type of Internet child pornography user, and there is no easy way to recognize an offender. In the 2005 Wolak survey, solicitors did not match the stereotype of the older male “Internet predator”. Many were identified as other youth and some were female. Having a preconceived idea of a child sex offender can be unhelpful and prove a distraction for investigating police. Those convicted of sexually abusing children will not necessarily seek out or collect pornography, with one study putting the number of offenders who do so at around ten percent (10%).
This explosion of computer use, and the ease with which identities can be concealed on-line, has offered obvious opportunities to those who produce and consume pornography and those who seek to exploit vulnerable populations for sexual gratification. The Internet technology affords perpetrators a foundation for repeated, long-term victimization of a child. These crimes present law enforcement with many complex problems due to the fact that they transcend jurisdictional boundaries and often involve multiple victims in multiple states and countries.
N-JOV data reflected that the most common use of the Internet with family (70%) and acquaintance (65%) offenders was for seduction or grooming of victims either through online conversations or sharing of pornographic images. Forty-nine percent (49%) of family offenders and thirty-nine percent (39%) of acquaintance offenders produced pornographic images of their victims, which they stored or disseminated using the Internet. Forty-three percent (43%) used the Internet to arrange a face-to-face meeting. Relatively small numbers of offenders (2-4%) used the Internet as an inducement to enter the offender’s home and use it to advertise or sell victims online. Seventy-five percent (75%) of these cases involved some form of sexual contact and forty-five percent (45%) involved intercourse or other penetration. In a quarter of these cases, the sexual contact continued for over a year before being reported to the police.
How Sex Offenders Select Victims
A greater number of sex offenders are using the Internet searching for potential child victims through “kid only” or “kid friendly” chat rooms, online games, and instant messenger. The “set-up” for victimization requires long-term thought and planning. But a distinctive aspect of interaction in cyberspace that facilitates the grooming process is the rapid speed with which communication can become intimate. Chat rooms can be frequented by sex offenders that groom and manipulate their victims by playing on the emotional immaturity of children in virtual anonymity. The goal of the “set-up” is to gain control over the victim. The length of time spent during the “set-up” varies upon the vulnerability of the child. The longer an offender knows a child the better they are at “zeroing” in their grooming tactics and strategies.
Grooming is a term used to describe the process of desensitizing and manipulating the victim(s) and/or others for the purpose of gaining an opportunity to commit a sexually deviant act [Title 22, Texas Administrative Code, Chapter 810.2(b)(15)]. Grooming inflicts psychological harm on the child. In teen chat rooms, the activities that precede the process of initiating direct contact with a child may simply involve the offender providing a description of themselves to all of the users of the public chat room so that the offender is masquerading as a particular kind of child, of a particular age, in the hope of attracting an equivalent age and the same or opposite sex child (i.e. 14/m/tx) (O’Connell, 2001). A sex offender may begin victim selection by observation in which an offender may “lurk” in chat rooms or massive multiplayer online games listening to conversations between children. An offender may search public profiles that include information such as name, age, location, hobbies, interests, and photographs. The offender will then wait for a child’s response and determine if they will initiate a conversation. After selecting a victim, the offender will introduce him or herself by instant message (IM) or by a private message to the child. Additionally, victim selection can involve viewing the child’s public profile. A victim’s information may be obtained through an Internet service provider request or a URL a child must provide in order to create their own website.
In the initial stages of grooming, the offender will suggest that the child move from a public domain to a private chat room or IM for an exclusive one-to-one conversation. The offender will engage in conversations related to school, home, hobbies, parental relationships, or interests of the child. The offender will gather information regarding the likelihood of activities being detected. The offender will manipulate the child to create an illusion of being the child’s best friend. The interactions take on the characteristics of a strong sense of mutuality (i.e. a mutual respect club comprised of two people that must ultimately remain a secret from all others). During these interactions, the child is praised, made to feel special, and very positive conversations are tailored to the age of the child. Gifts or money may be offered to the child. Sadly, sex offenders tend to target children who are neglected or come from dysfunctional homes. For these children, the sex offender offers an alternative relationship that makes the child feel special and loved.
The offender introduces the idea of trust, affection, and loyalty but it is based on deception and manipulation. This grooming tactic provides a forum to move into the next stage of victimization. The offender will begin to exploit social norms and test the child’s boundaries. The offender could ask the child “have you been kissed?”, “have you ever been skinny dipping?”, or “do you wear a bikini?” If the child does not respond negatively to the boundary violation, it is tantamount to accepting the behavior or language. During boundary violations, the offender has positioned the child into believing that they share a deep sense of mutual trust.
Offenders who intend to maintain a relationship with a child will progress carefully and methodically into sexually explicit language. The nature of the conversations will progress from mild conversations (i.e. “I love you” or “I want to kiss you”) to extremely explicit (i.e. masturbation or oral sex). The target child may be drawn into producing pornography by sending photos, using a web-cam or engaging in sexual discussions. To silence the child and ensure their continued compliance in sexual exploitation, the offender may use a variety of tactics including rewards, violence, threats, bribery, punishment, coercion, peer pressure, and fear (Klain, 2001). Research indicates that this pattern of conversations is characteristic of an online relationship that may progress to a request for a face-to-face meeting.
Child Pornography Under federal law, child pornography is defined as a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, photograph, film, video, or computer-generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, of sexually explicit conduct, where it
- depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct and is obscene, or
- depicts an image that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex, and such depiction lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value (18 U.S.C §1466A and 18 U.S.C. §2256)
Sexually explicit conduct includes various forms of sexual activity such as intercourse, bestiality, masturbation, sadistic or masochistic abuse, and lascivious exhibition of the genitals. It is illegal to possess, distribute, or manufacture these images.
Pornography and Child Pornography on the Internet
Both adult and child pornography has saturated the Internet due to the lack of censorship by the industry. The Internet provides the social, individual, and technological circumstances in which an interest in child pornography flourishes. Cyberspace is host to more than one (1) million images of tens of thousands of children subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation. Of the estimated 24.7 million Internet users between the ages of ten (10) and seventeen (17), approximately 8.4 million youths received unwanted exposure to sexual material.
Child pornography is the second highest category, after indecent exposure, of sexual re-offense behavior. The vast majority of children who appear in child pornography have not been abducted or physically forced to participate. In most cases the child knows the producer and it may even be their father who manipulates the child into taking part by more subtle means. Most children feel a pressure to cooperate with the offender and not to disclose the offense, both out of loyalty to the offender and a sense of shame about their own behavior.
Physical contact between a child and a perpetrator does not need to occur for a child to become a victim or for a crime to be committed. Innocent pictures or images of children can be digitally transformed into pornographic material and distributed across the Internet without the victim’s knowledge (U.S. Department of Justice, 2001). Digital graphic software (i.e. Photoshop, Illustrator, Microsoft PhotoEditor) allow offenders to edit “innocent” pictures. After a picture is scanned into a computer, these image-editing programs can be used to put several photos together or to distort pictures and create a believable image of a reality that never existed. This process is called “morphing”. In some countries, morphed images or pictures are not illegal. Offenders may claim in court that a picture is morphed, no matter how disturbing, is not a picture of a real child or a situation which actually took place, and thus is not illegal.
In April 2002, the United States Supreme Court found that provisions of the Child Pornography Act (CPPA), which prohibited the depiction of virtual and simulated child pornography, were invalid under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court found that in the absence of a “real” child, the Court could see no “direct link” between such images and the sexual abuse of children. The Court’s majority could not see a substantial risk of producers of child pornography using virtual images of children. Additionally, children can be exposed to “virtual” pornography. Virtual pornography is legal the United States and in some other countries.
In the 2005 Wolak study, almost all of the arrested child pornography possessors (91%) used home computers to access child pornography and almost one (1) in five (5) arrested (18%) used a home computer in more than one (1) location to access child pornography. Additionally, Wolak found that in fourteen percent (14%) of child pornography investigations, the offenders not only had possessed pornography but had sexually victimized children and two percent (2%) possessed pornography and attempted to sexually victimize children. Eighty-four percent (84%) of the investigations involving child pornography did not detect concurrent child sexual victimization or attempts at victimization (Wolak, 2005). According to the United States Postal Inspection Service, forty percent (40%) of child pornographers investigated have sexually molested children. From January 1997 through March 2004, 1,807 child pornographers were arrested and 620 (34%) of these offenders were confirmed child molesters (Kim, 2004).
Although most Internet pornography is created offline, technology has evolved to create “real” life pornography that can be viewed in real time, using web-cameras, phone cameras, digital cameras, and streaming video. A user can be notified of the date and time to log on the computer to view a child being sexually abused. The advent of mini-cameras has allowed for pictures and videos to be created without the subject’s knowledge. The user may pay money or exchange images with the direct abuser (Palmer, 2004).
These illegal images can be presented in various forms including print media, videotape, film, compact disc, read-only memory (CD-ROM), or digital versatile technology (DVD) (Klain, 2001) and can be transmitted through computer bulletin-board systems (BBS), USENET Newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat, web-based groups, peer-to-peer technology, and an array of constantly changing world wide web sites.
Using Child Pornography to Groom Children
Children can be exposed to pornography through spam or potential abusers. The accessibility of pornography online, the ease and perceived anonymity of transmission, and the environment of “virtuality” itself makes the use of pornography in online grooming easier for an abuser. Pornography is a tool for inducting and socializing a child into behaviors that reflect the content of the pornographic materials. Sex offenders frequently use pornography as a tool to assist them in the grooming process.
Children exploring the Internet for education and entertainment are at risk of encountering sexually explicit material, sexual exploitation, and offenses against children while remaining undetected by parents. Children are extremely vulnerable to victimization due to their curiosity, naiveté, and trusting nature. The Internet has become a conduit for sexually explicit material and offenses against children. In 2006, Wolak reported fifty-four percent (54%) of boys and forty-six percent (46%) of girls received unwanted exposure to sexual material. Ninety percent (90%) of all solicitations happened to teenagers (ages 13 to 17). Eighty-six percent (86%) received images of naked people and fifty-seven percent (57%) received pictures of people having sex and/or violent or deviant images. Lastly, eighty-three percent (83%) of unwanted exposures occurred when youth were surfing the web and eighty-nine percent (89%) of incidents the senders were unable to be identified.
Sex offenders use pornography to escalate the relationship with the child. According to the Klain study, the most common purposes for which offenders use child pornography are:
- Pornography creates a permanent record for sexual arousal and gratification.
- Pornography lowers the child’s inhibitions to engage in sexual behavior.
- Pornography may be used to teach children how to behave, pose, or re-enact scenes.
- Pornography may be used to blackmail child victims by threatening to show the photographs, videos, or other depictions to parents, friends, or teachers. The threat becomes more potent because the child may fear punishment by the criminal justice system.
- Pornography created to sell for profit or trade between individuals. The Internet’s anonymity, enhanced by increasingly sophisticated encryption technology, facilitates the increasing demand for child pornography.
Repeated exposure to adult and child pornography is deliberately used to diminish the child’s inhibitions, break barriers to sexual arousal, desensitize the child that sex is normal, and arouse the victim. Children depicted in pictures are often smiling or have neutral expressions, a factor that appears to be designed to represent the children as willing participants in sexual or degrading acts. There is a recent trend for pictures to be taken in domestic settings such as a kitchen or bedroom, thus further “normalizing” the activity for children who view images.
It has been reported that children under ten (10) who have been exposed to sexually exploitative material have themselves become users of it. Eight percent (8%) of youths admitted to going voluntarily to X-rated sites. Children at most risk of being violated through pornography productions are within the home and family. The child knows their abuser as a parent, a relative, a guardian, or an acquaintance. In these situations, the abuse may be more likely to come to light inadvertently as a result of inquiries by social welfare and reports from neighbors, rather than as a result of police inquiries into online crime.
Reporting Internet Crimes
The impact of online child victimization (i.e. solicitation and harassment) is not completely understood. Family dynamics often play a significant role in children’s denial of a crime and their willingness to participate in the investigation and prosecution. A child’s ability to acknowledge and accept the crime can be linked to family values, peer pressure, and feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. Only three percent (3%) of all incidents of predators harassing children on the Internet is reported. The Crimes against Children Research Center found less than ten percent (10%) of sexual solicitations and only three percent (3%) of unwanted exposure episodes were reported to authorities such as a law-enforcement agency, an Internet service provider, or a hotline. In 2005, only one (1) incident out of more than 500 incidents of sexually explicit material was ever reported to an Internet service provider.
Ninety-five percent (95%) of parents could not identify common chat room lingo that teenagers use to warn people they are chatting with that their parents were watching (NCMEC, 2005). Ninety-two percent (92%) of parents did not know the meaning of A/S/L (Age/Sex/Location) (NCMEC, 2005). Parents should watch for the following questionable abbreviations:
- 53x means “sex”
- 121 means “one to one”
- A/S/L means age, sex, location. Watch for personal information being exchanged (i.e. 14/m/tx). This is a 14 year old male from Texas.
- CYBER used as a verb and means “cybersex”
- CONNECT means “to talk privately”
- DIKU means “do I know you”
- ESAD means “eat sh*t and die”
- F2F, FTF means “face to face” or “let’s meet F2F”
- FOAD means “f*ck off and die”
- GP means “go private”
- H4U means “hot for you”
- H&K means “hugs and kisses”
- ILU means “I love you”
- IWALU means “I will always love you”
- KOC means “kiss on the cheek”
- KOL means “kiss on the lips”
- LTR means “long term relationship”
- LMIRL means “lets meet in real life”
- LUWAMH means “love you with all my heart”
- LU means “love you”
- MOSS means “member of the same sex”
- MOTOS means “member of the opposite sex”
- MUSM means “miss you so much”
- NIFOC means “naked in front of the computer”
- OLL means “online love”
- P2P means “person to person”
- P911 means “my parents are coming”
- PA means “parent alert”
- PAL means “parents are listening”
- PANB means “parents are near by”
- PM means “private message or one on one chat”
- POS means “parent over shoulder”
- pr0n is an alternate spelling for porn or pornography
- PDA means “public display of affection”
- RL, IRL means “in real life as in “wants to see you IRL”
- SWAK means “sealed with a kiss”
- TOY means “thinking of you”
- WIBNI means “wouldn’t it be nice if”
- WTGP means “want to go private”
- WUF means “where are you from”
- WTF means “what the f*ck”
Acronyms and words used in daily IM or discussion boards
- AFAIK means “as far as I know”
- BTW means “by the way”
- CUL means “see you later”
- HHOK means “ha ha only kidding”
- IANAL means “I am not a lawyer”
- IIRC means “if I remember correctly”
- IMHO means “in my humble opinion”
- KEWL means “cool”
- OMG means “oh my god”
- OTOH means “on the other hand”
- WUT^2 “what up with you too”
Characteristics of Youth Who Form Close Online Relationships
- Sixteen percent (16%) of girls and twelve (12%) of boys have close online relationships.
- Girls aged fourteen (14) to seventeen (17) were twice as likely as girls ten (10) to thirteen (13) to form close online relationships.
- High parent-child conflict and being highly troubled were associated with close online relationships. Girls with high levels of parent-child conflict report yelling, nagging, and privileges by parents at higher levels than other girls. The highly troubled girls had levels of depression, victimization, and troubling life events at higher levels than other girls.
- Boys who had low communications with their parents, and who also reported that their parents were less likely to know where and who they were with were the most strongly associated with close online relationships.
- Girls and boys who reported high levels of Internet use and home Internet access were more likely to report close online relationships.
- Youths with problems were most likely to attend a face-to-face meeting with people they first met online.
Warning Signs that a Child may be at Risk
- Excessive use of online services especially during the late night hours
- Unsupervised time in unmonitored chat rooms
- Mood swings and withdraws
- Greater desire to spend time with people online than with “real life” people
- Unexplained files downloaded (i.e. .jpd, .gif, .bmp, .tif, .pcx, .mov, .avi, .wmv, or .mpg)
Defenses to Online Solicitation of a Minor
People are often arrested and charged with online solicitation when they meet the minor in question in person. However, it is important to note that a person can still be charged with this offense even if the meeting never occurs. Despite this, a person may be found innocent of online solicitation if one or both of the following apply:
- He or she is legally married to the minor in question
- He or she is less than three years older than the minor
Solicitation of a minor laws have frequently been challenged by defendants on the basis that they violate a defendant’s right to free speech, but have survived such claims. Viable defenses remaining will depend on a particular state’s laws. Some earlier laws required a defendant to actually communicate with a child and defendants could raise the defense of impossibility where prosecution involved communication with an officer who was merely posing as a child but who was in actuality an adult. In response to the success of the impossibility defense, many state statutes changed their laws to permit a conviction based on a defendant’s belief that they were talking to a minor. Other states have also built in “Romeo and Juliet” defenses for a defendant who is involved in a dating relationship with a child who was not more than three years younger than the defendant.
Although not an outright “defense,” another defensive angle is to prove that the defendant did not know that the person on the other end was a minor. Most states have strict liability laws — which means the state is not required to prove that a defendant knew how old the child was, only that the child was underage. However, some juries have engaged in “jury nullification,” by finding a defendant not guilty if they believed that the defendant did not have a reason to believe the child was underage. Showing that the conversation was just an online fantasy or proving that they never intended to actually meet the minor are generally not good defenses. Before a defendant decides to pursue a defensive theory, they should discuss the practicality of the defense with a criminal attorney in their area.
Solicitation of a Minor: Misdemeanor or Felony?
Online solicitation of a minor is usually classified as a felony level offense. As with most felonies, the range of punishment can include a deferred or suspended sentence, up to several years in prison. A defendant in Texas can receive anywhere from two to twenty years in prison. Although a deferred sentence can allow a defendant to remain free, the restrictions of probation tend to be more intense for online solicitation charges because they are considered sexually related offenses. The court can order a defendant to submit to maintenance polygraphs, complete individual or group sex offender counseling, to submit to a sex offender evaluation, and to refrain from being around any children while on probation. The court can also require a defendant to pay for these programs which can run up to $500.00 or more per month.
The long-term consequences can be even more severe. Because online solicitation of a minor is considered a sexually related offense, a defendant can be required to register as a sex offender. If a defendant fails to register, they can be charged with a new felony offense of failure to register as a sex offender. Once a defendant has a sexually related offense on their record, some states will significantly increase the punishment for a second offense if a defendant is ever charged with another sexually related offense. Beyond the court system, online solicitation will also affect employment opportunities. With more open access to the court systems, more employers are performing background checks and will not hire certain candidates. Applicants with sexually related offenses are generally the first to get cut.
When you have been charged with a severe legal offense, it is very important to understand your rights and defense options. An experienced Austin Criminal Lawyer can help you decide what steps you need to take next. The attorneys of the Charles Johnson Law Firm are aggressive child sex crime defense lawyers who will make every effort to fight the allegations against you. Contact us for a free consultation today at 512-832-1200 anytime, night or day if you have been falsely accused of soliciting a minor online.
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