You may have watched the popular reality TV series “To Catch a Predator” which aired from 2004-2008. In that series, law enforcement would set up adult men who thought they had arranged a tryst with a minor. The scheme went something like this: an adult man would go online looking for minors (usually girls) to have sex with. On the other end of the online hookup would actually be a law enforcement officer posing as the minor. Eventually, there would be an arrangement to meet at which point, the TV show’s tapes started reeling. The unsuspecting adult would show up and before he knew it, he was tackled to the ground and arrested for soliciting a minor.
To Catch a Predator is no longer on the air but luring unsuspecting predators into the hands of law enforcement is a thriving business. Did I say business? Well, yes, it is. Across the country, self-styled vigilantes, often working with law enforcement, have set up their own predator sting operations. Going on popular hook-up or chat apps, these vigilantes posing as children, engage with adults. Sophisticated in the legal requirements to prosecute for soliciting a minor, the vigilantes are careful to set up the predator so that the elements of the crime are satisfied. These vigilantes then provide law enforcement with the evidence they need to prosecute the predators. The vigilantes usually live stream their predator captures on Tiktok, Facebook, YouTube or other social media. These social media accounts bring in donations and/or membership fees and can have thousands of followers. Social media, such as YouTube, also monetize videos and popular uploads can make plenty of money.
But as with Catch a Predator, which went off the air after a Texas assistant district attorney — understanding that he had been exposed — shot himself as the To Catch a Predator camera crew entered his house, the vigilante operations have potentially dangerous consequences. Some law enforcement agencies and prosecutors refuse to work with these groups fearing a confrontation could turn violent, that the evidence could be altered, and because of the obvious concern that untrained civilians confronting a predator in public places may present a danger to the public.
California has its share of vigilante groups that target sexual predators. In Southern California, a group called “Creep Catchers” — a group operating nationwide and in Canada — has targeted sexual predators, live-streaming their “catch.” This summer, for example, Creep Catchers posing as a 14-year-old girl, exchanged messages with a 36-year-old man. After he made what Creep Catchers described as graphic sexual advances, the vigilante group confronted him at the Irvine Spectrum. He took off on foot across the 5 Freeway, managing to dodge the cars along the 10-lane freeway. It was all filmed on live-stream by Creep Catchers. The alleged predator was finally caught whereupon he tearfully apologized, but also brandished a knife. Irvine police had been notified, and he was taken into custody and later charged with two felony counts of luring a minor, along with a misdemeanor charge of brandishing a knife.
Police in Southern California warn that these vigilante groups pose an unsafe risk and many in law enforcement discourage the tactics. Nonetheless, the groups carry on and have thousands, if not millions, of online followers across the country. The vigilante groups insist that off-the-record law enforcement support the groups and their operations.
Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg offers a confidential and free consultation to discuss your criminal matter. You may reach him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.