Two weeks ago, six men were arrested by Scottsdale police after an undercover prostitution sting. According to court documents, the Scottsdale police placed “escort” ads on backpage.com and other websites, and the men responded looking for sex with underage girls. The men arrived at the place they believed to be meeting the girls and were arrested by police, who had set up an operation at the nearby Scottsdale airport. The “escorts” were, in fact, undercover police officers or actresses pretending to be below the age of majority.
Several Valley cities have cracked down on prostitution solicitation using ‘Catch a Predator’ undercover operations. If you are unfamiliar with ‘To Catch a Predator’, the show features hidden camera investigations, in which the program’s actors impersonate underage people and help police arrest male adults who contacted them over the internet for sexual services. Although the television quasi-documentaries are somewhat novel, police have been using these types of undercover stings for many years to make arrests.
Let’s say a man named John goes to a website seeking sexual services. John may not know that the girl he’s calling are under aged since they are advertised as over 18 and the login on the particular website requires verification of the same. The advertising “escort” provides a number for John to call. John calls the number—but the girl on the line does not really intend to engage in a criminal act. Instead, her goal is to persuade John to come to her location while alluding to the fact that she is underage – at least, enough to secure an arrest.
Once the services are arranged for a particular date, time and place the undercover officer/actress will perhaps ask John to pick up a pack of cigarettes on the way to the motel because she can’t buy them or had her “fake ID” taken away (ostensibly because she is under 18). Of course, the call is recorded and used as evidence that John knew his anticipated sexual partner is a minor.
When John arrives at the hotel, he may be arrested on the spot or the police may wait for him to engage in a conversation with the undercover detective while being monitored from the next room. Because Arizona law criminalizes the agreement to exchange money for a sex act, the police need not wait for John to actually disrobe or for any contact to occur before making the arrest.
These types of sting operations are one of the many tools detectives can use to arrest men who want to buy sex. The biggest challenge in many cases is establishing that the target of the sting operation knew and intended to buy sex with a minor, which is a far more severe offense than soliciting prostitution from an adult. As criminals become more sophisticated and advertisements for commercial sex exchanges move into more discrete channels, so too do sting operations evolve and create new legal issues.