We are frequently asked what the most important thing a person can so when he learns he is being investigated for solicitation of a minor. The use of a computer to engage in or attempt to engage in acts with a minor can be charged as several crimes. First, the accused can be charged with using a computer to have a minor send pornographic pictures. Likewise, the computer may be used to solicit a minor to meet for sexual encounter. Alternatively, a defendant can be charged with traveling to meet a minor for the purpose of engaging in an unlawful act. An additional charge of use of a communication device, namely a phone, to commit a felony is also typically charged. The vast majority of cases are charged under the Computer Pornography and Child Exploitation Prevention Act, § 847.0135, Fla. Stat. (2018). In addition to criminal penalties of up to fifteen years incarceration per court, potential damages of “at least $150,000” can be recovered in a civil lawsuit brought by a minor against the accused, pursuant to § 847.01357, Fla. Stat. (2018).
Often such prosecutions arise as the result of undercover stings conducted by local law enforcement. During the course of these sting operations, where large groups of individuals are solicited, arrested en masse and charged under various statues. It is not uncommon for police officers to pose as underage minors during these investigations and engage in conversation whose sole purpose is to prevent the defendant from later claiming that he believed the person being communicated with was not a minor. Pictures of police officers dressed and posed as if they are underage are often sent to convince the person being investigated that they are communicating with an underage subject.
After arranging to meet with their subject, police direct the person to a certain location, where the accused is arrested, he and his vehicle are searched, and he is asked to provide a signed statement admitting guilt.
Under these circumstances, the most significant question is what not to do. It is important in these circumstances not to consent to a search of your vehicle (although it will be searched anyway), not to consent to a search of electronic devices and not to agree to give a written statement of any sort. If you give consent, you have waived your right to claim later that the search or questioning was unlawful.
Often, the arresting officer will tell you that they just want to hear “your” side of the story, or pretend to believe the person you were talking to was of age. These assurances are merely a ruse to get you to incriminate yourself. The courts have held that police officers are permitted to lie to obtain both your confession and your consent; you should always assume that any evidence you provide to the police will be used against you.
If you have been arrested and are detained, you should also be aware that any comments you make over the phone while detained will be recorded. Those statements can also be introduced against you at trial. In contacting family members, you should not provide details of what happened or discuss any potential defense of your case. Provide only information necessary to hire counsel in your case.
The final and most important thing to do if you have been charged is to hire experienced counsel to represent you. In most counties throughout Florida, a first appearance hearing will be held within 24 hours of your arrest. At that hearing, bond will be set. It is critical that every effort is made to retain counsel for the bond hearing. The amount of bond set can vary widely in these cases. An experienced lawyer can present important evidence to convince the court to set a reasonable bond.
In seeking counsel, it is important to thoroughly research the background and experience of the attorney who will be representing you. Is that lawyer AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell? Are they a Super Lawyer or have they been recognized by Best Lawyers in America? How many of these types of cases have they actually handled? Do they have the investigative and legal resources necessary to defend you? Do they have a “virtual office” without an actual location or do they have an established practice and reputation?
When faced with charges relating to solicitation of a minor for sexual activity, the decisions you make can have a lasting impact on your life. Be sure those decisions are informed ones.