Written by: Chris Bing
About 4 months back, while I was still working at The Daily Caller, I reported on a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office operation that busted 25 suspected pedophiles in a one-week covert sting. On July 1st, approximately 85 miles north, the Polk County Sheriff’s office reported a similar Chris Hanson-esque operation with equal success codenamed “Operation Cyber Crime III”, according to a local CBS affiliate(WTSP). Authorities say that a long-standing local high school teacher and several Disney/Universal employees were among the 16 people arrested. Yet, while Florida PD continue their holy war style offensive against suspected pedophiles questions loom over the legal precedents of doing so.
What powers are these departments entitled to? Can the police use the method of entrapment to justifiably charge someone? In a new, ever evolving security-state era, should the police be able to entice someone to commit a crime they weren't otherwise going to commit for the sake of communal safety?
Covert stings of this sort became a statewide initiative in 2012, when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement publicly boasted that they would lead the nation in the ‘defense of innocent children’.
In Florida's Polk County, the sheriff's department arrested 16 people this weekend. On Monday, July 1st, Polk County's exuberant Sheriff, Grady Judd, talked to the press at a great and unnecessary length about the weekend’s operation: “Operation Cyber Crime III”.
To be fair, the Sheriff’s instant classic of a press conference and the case’s Disney World back drop are what first turned me back to Florida — but I never expected what came next. The press conference was nothing short of a media circus on par with North Korean journalists ‘impartially’ describing their dear leader.
“While his resolve is astonishing, and the cause is noble, the speech was unclear at times as Judd meandered and took unnecessary detours while painting this batch of molesters as an eccentric, and weirdly talkative, bunch of perverts.”- Mike Pearl, Vice News contributor.
With a warm and curling southern twang Judd’s sermon took cues from Steven Zaillian's All the King’s Men. It was audacious, ironically depressing, embarrassing, hilarious, ignorant, dull-witted, but more than anything, it may be an audition for a greater role — one of fraudulent self-empowerment.
In the conference Judd paints a vivid picture of the suspect’s monstrous deeds. Slowly and with a peculiar eagerness he posed with a mugshot of each suspect and solemnly spoke of the inevitable retribution they would face — all the while he reassured the people of Central Florida that he would double his efforts to protect their children.
Though elementary, it seems a tad extravagant that the arrests of all of these men was documented on video — adding another totally unnecessary bit of theatrical flourish. Each arrest was cut-shot from the same angle in the video, the suspects in cuffs, facing the camera, trembling, the images always amber-toned.
Judd's account of one suspect’s arrest, Jacob Bickle, took an oddly melodramatic turn, as though he were trying to make Bickle sympathetic: "Once he was arrested he went from wanting to have sex with children, and arriving to have sex with children, to begging us to shoot him. Well, when we wouldn’t do what he asked, upon arriving at county jail he begged the transport deputy not to leave him there. 'Please don’t leave me here. Would you at least give me a hug before you let me off at jail?'"
Another suspect, Matthew Tillesen, 28, a geometry teacher at Haines City High School, faces 50 counts of possession of child pornography. Instead of focusing on the serious measure and suspect’s legal culpability Judd took another route though. Tillesen was vilified for his apparent fondness of Ukraine.
"He has been to the Ukraine, and he loves the Ukraine. He says he loves the Ukraine like we love the United States. So why does he love the Ukraine? That’s under investigation. I’ll tell you what we love: We love to arrest sexual predators.”- Grady Judd, Polk County Sheriff
Though the Sheriff’s ‘show’ may only be playing in a few ‘theaters’ — while CBS affiliate WTSP is his main stage — I am far from the only skeptical journalist rating it on a 5-star scale.
“Despite findings by 10 Investigates that officers and deputies may not have followed federal guidelines in trying to lure sexual predators during a recent sting, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office tells 10 News no discipline or action is expected.”-Noah Pransky, WTSP Investigative Reporter
Pransky and his team have been issuing public-record requests for some time but have had no luck. It seems that WTSP wants to make sure these stings aren't entrapment — overstepping an obvious legal/federal mandate.
To calm their fears Judd preemptively ensured the press conference’s attendees that the operation wasn't entrapment...
"The reason this is not just the Florida sheriff’s top priority, but my top priority, is because every one of these people would have engaged very young children in sex this weekend but for our great detectives that work hard to keep that from happening.”-Grady Judd, Polk County Sheriff
Even if Judd is covering something up — which an educated guess may suggest — there’s little doubt if any, that it would be as heinous as molesting innocent children or being in possession of child pornography.
"There's no question law enforcement blurs the lines in operations like these, see the Accardi Doctrine/Principle.” a D.C. based criminal defense lawyer who preferred to remain anonymous told The Grey Cut.
To what extent these lines can be blurred and who ends up on either side of them is the real question here. And, it is a question we have to keep in mind moving forward in our contemporary information-era as a society — a time where personal privacy clearly means less than it ever has.
To a certain degree the infamous Bush-era Patriot Act and the subsequent NSA scandal has illuminated this threat to us more than ever before. But more needs to be done to fight back against it and we, as an American public, cannot grow complacent with the fact that our privacies are constantly trampled upon by our State and Federal government.
American citizens, specifically active voters, must react to the government's advancement on individual privacy rights and dictate change through congress with their votes.
“PCSO[Polk County Sheriff’s Office] said every email exchange from its four-day operation -- including from men who showed no interest in sex with underage children -- remained an open investigation, with arrests or prosecutions imminent. An agency spokesperson said there were no plans to close the cases anytime soon.”-Noah Pransky, WTSP Investigative Reporter