Our courts will let the government get away with almost anything. Although judges have expressed immense amounts of displeasure at the ATF’s sting operations involving fictitious drug stash houses, it has seldom resulted in reversed convictions. To “shock the conscience,” the government must cross lines courts are very reluctant to draw. Running a child porn website for a few weeks doesn’t do it. Neither does taking a trucking company’s truck and employee and returning both full of bullet holes after a sting goes south.
Very occasionally, the government will find its way across this line. Eric Goldman has uncovered one of these rare cases. It involves a child sex sting operation perpetrated by a law enforcement agency, during which the undercover officer refused to leave a “target” alone after he repeatedly made it clear he wasn’t looking to buy sex from an underage female.
This case’s setup resembles dozens or hundreds of similar cases I’ve read. In 2014, a law enforcement officer (in this case, Skagit County Sheriff’s detective Theresa Luvera) posted a sex solicitation on Craigslist’s casual encounters. As we’ve discussed before, Craigslist’s rules required all participants to be 18+. something that has undermined sex stings in the past (if you read that post, the parallels to this post will be obvious).
The defendant responded to the solicitation. After some online exchanges between the detective and the defendant, the detective claimed she is underage (“almost 15 but waaay advanced”). Even further into the exchanges, the detective brought up money-for-sex. At every step along the way but the end, the defendant seemingly made it clear he was seeking free sex with a female adult. Eventually the defendant shows up at the designated rendezvous point with the requested items. He “was charged with one count of communication with a minor for immoral purposes, one count of commercial sex abuse of a minor, and one count of attempted rape of a child in the third degree.”
The trial court dismissed the charges, pointing to the detective’s “outrageous misconduct.” More specifically, it pointed to the state’s violation of the defendant’s due process right to “fundamental fairness.” The appellate court upholds the decision in its opinion [PDF], which recaps, verbatim, some of the nearly 100 sexually explicit messages sent by the detective to push someone who had disengaged from the conversation multiple times into breaking the law.
In this matter, a law enforcement officer anonymously published an advertisement on an online classifieds platform reserved for those over the age of 18 and indicated that she was “a young female” seeking an individual interested in a casual sexual encounter. Joshua Solomon responded to the advertisement. Thereafter, the police officer assumed the guise of a fictional 14-year-old girl and sent Solomon nearly 100 messages laden with graphic, sexualized language and innuendo and persistently solicited him to engage in a sexual encounter with the fictional minor, notwithstanding that he had rejected her solicitations seven times over the course of four days.
At one point, Solomon rejected the “teen’s” advances, stating specifically he thought this was “a setup by cops or a website.” This only resulted in Detective Luvera increasing her pleas for illegal sex and amping up the sexual content of the messages. The appellate court’s analysis tracks the trial court’s distaste for the state’s actions. But, as it notes, the government is cut so much slack in so many edge cases, precedential decisions on the topic are few and far between.
A decade later, for the first time, a claim of outrageous governmental misconduct was presented to the Supreme Court in a case in which a full trial court record was extant. In State v. Athan,law enforcement officers, “posing as a fictitious law firm, induced Athan to mail a letter to the firm.” 160 Wn.2d 354, 362, 158 P.3d 27 (2007). They did so in order to obtain a sample of his DNA.
That’s what the Washington state court has to work with after 100+ years of jurisprudence: one case roughly on point involving something which seems less violative of due process rights. (More of a 4th Amendment violation than a 14th Amendment violation.) The trial court certainly didn’t need a bunch of precedent on hand to find the government’s behavior disgusting. The appellate decision quotes it at length on the way to upholding the lower court’s findings. In this case, the only thing propelling the sting forward was the government. Seven times the defendant tried to disengage and seven times the detective assailed him with increasingly-graphic text messages. And all of this stems from an action the government took: the placement of an ad in an area of Craigslist where all ad posters were supposed to be over the age of 18.
Here’s just a small part of the trail court’s oral comments on the sheriff department’s actions (NSFW in parts):
I can’t believe the detective would want to go to trial on this and subject this language to citizens. I’m just going to give you a little tidbit. At 3:17 on Wednesday, September 17th, the detective says, “OMG U R so fing hung baby!!! VVTF . . . I’m so amped up after seeing this. I have wait for my sister to leave and I am gonna video tape me finger banging me to ur plc! Can’t u cum and see me now!!!” Yeah, that’s repugnant. I don’t care how you cut that pie. You can be a seasoned old sailor or whatever, but that is repugnant. That’s a detective letting line out very fast on a free spool trying to get Mr. Solomon back in the game. And there is no other way to — there is no other way to describe it. It’s outrageous. That is repugnant. It’s egregious.
The appeals court sums this all up with a couple of concise paragraphs.
In ruling to dismiss the charges, the trial court did not adopt a view that no reasonable judge would take. Given the court’s finding that law enforcement had initiated and controlled the criminal activity, persistently solicited Solomon to commit the crimes so initiated, and acted in a manner (through the use of language and otherwise) repugnant to the trial judge’s view of the community’s sense of justice, the trial court’s determination was tenable.
Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by ordering that the charges against Solomon be dismissed. There was no error.
This isn’t how you catch criminals. This is how you manufacture criminals. Much like the ATF’s stash house stings and a great many of the FBI’s terrorist investigations, the government does 99% of the work and jails the unlucky person who has been coerced and cajoled into doing something they likely would have never done if the government hadn’t instigated it. A good call here by both courts working without almost zero precedent. Unfortunately, the lack of precedent doesn’t suggest a well-behaved government. Instead, it points to a whole lot of judicial slack being cut over the years.