In the modern world, the threat of trial by social media is a real and present one. Platforms such as Twitter have enabled legitimate complaints of sexual abuse to be raised. However, they have also become a forum where Internet trolls and vigilantes can levy unproven accusations at anyone suspected of paedophilia.
Anyone who has fallen victim to online vigilante groups targeting paedophiles will know that all too often the old adage, no smoke without fire, is more powerful than the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty. The global and fast-moving nature of the Internet means that after one allegation, the world’s judgement can be cast against a person overnight. Regardless of the outcome of any subsequent criminal trial, there will always be a black mark against their name.
That said, many will argue that law enforcement is too overwhelmed to be able to effectively police Internet paedophilia. Consequently, they suggest, it is down to the ordinary citizen to intercept paedophiles and ensure that they are brought to justice. This article explores the law behind paedophile hunting. It looks at whether hunting paedophiles is illegal and provides information in respect of what could happen if you are accused of paedophilia by paedophile hunters.
There are groups of individuals who make it their object to target paedophiles online. These cyber vigilantes do not work for the police or child protection agencies. They are ordinary citizens taking matters into their own hands. These groups of online vigilantes claim to be motivated by a goal of protecting children from abuse. They say that they feel compelled to hunt paedophiles because the police are not doing enough to protect children.
There are over 75 of these groups operating online. Well known examples are Predator Exposure, Letzgo Hunting, Dark Justice, Guardians of the North, and Soul Survivors. Whilst the police do not directly collaborate with them in evidence gathering, the information gathered by vigilante groups is frequently relied upon in criminal trials.
Paedophile hunters are individuals operating in the Internet space, who pose as children in order to lure ‘predators’ into chat rooms. They often spend hours talking to potential predators online. Then they arrange to meet the alleged paedophile in person and film them, whilst accusing them of grooming children for sex. Unlike the police, who only publish the details of suspects in exceptional circumstances, paedophile hunters publicise their allegations. They post videos of their suspect on social media, and often also post their contact details online. They also report them to the police and ask them to begin an investigation.
Whilst this strategy has the power to uncover people who are using the Internet as a space to groom children, it also has many innocent victims. Many of those who have been ‘exposed’ by online vigilante groups targeting paedophiles, regardless of whether they are guilty of any crime, have been forced to go into hiding, and have lost their relationships, been terminated from jobs, have experienced social services intervention, and have been deprived of contact with their children. Some have even committed suicide.
Evidence from paedophile hunters is increasingly being used in criminal trials. In 2018, evidence gathered by paedophile hunters was used in 250 cases against suspected abusers. Over half of the convictions that year for the offence of attempting to meet a child following sexual grooming relied upon evidence obtained by paedophile hunters. This would seem to suggest that as much as the police complain about the unscrupulous nature of vigilante groups, they also rely upon the evidence of these vigilante groups to secure convictions for child grooming.
If you have been accused of paedophilia due to the actions of paedophile hunters, your legal defence team may be able to put forward an argument of abuse of process, on the basis that the evidence against you was obtained through entrapment. Entrapment is not a defence to the crime that you have been accused of. At best, it could result in a stay (postponement) of the criminal case against you.
However, alleged paedophiles are not always able to rely upon the entrapment argument. In England and Wales, the law on entrapment focusses on protecting individuals from entrapment by state agencies such as the police. Where the entrapment has been done by vigilante groups, it is known ‘private entrapment’. The law does not offer as much protection to the citizen against private entrapment as it does against state-led entrapment. Because the groups are acting as private citizens not as intelligence agencies, the laws regulating surveillance powers do not apply to them. Commentators have questioned whether it is appropriate to grant a stay in proceedings for private entrapment, where the allegation of misconduct is against the vigilante group and not against the police.
In 2017, a criminal court case against two alleged paedophiles considered whether paedophile hunters should be subject to legal controls. The two accused argued that the vigilante group “diminished the integrity of the court process.” The judge, however, did not agree with them, highlighting that there was no legal requirement to regulate the activity of paedophile hunters.
Paedophile hunting is not a crime in itself. However, some of the activities frequently undertaken by paedophile hunters, such as violence, extortion, and blackmail are illegal. One vigilante was accused of giving inaccurate and misleading evidence in court. If vigilantes share paedophilic images as part of their activities, they can be charged with offences such as distributing indecent images of a child.
Whilst police use evidence obtained by paedophile hunters, they also cite that these vigilante groups often commit offences themselves, and the head of the National Police Chief’s Council has expressed concerns that they may be drawing polices’ attention and resources away from more significant offenders.
Humberside Police have a page on their website urging vigilante groups to send their evidence directly to the police rather than sharing it online, and asking members of the public not to share posted content regarding alleged paedophiles. The page expresses concern about an incident of public disorder that took place following the decision of a vigilante group to publish information about an alleged paedophile.
The National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children has also expressed concerns that paedophile hunters may be doing more harm than good, by driving paedophiles underground, endangering ongoing police work and the legal process, and targeting innocent people. They have also highlighted concerns that paedophile hunters have no way of safeguarding the at risk children whom they come across.
Citizen policing is a term used to describe situations where citizens take a proactive approach to apprehending criminals. A citizen’s arrest is lawful in England and Wales if:
A citizen is entitled to use reasonable force to carry out the arrest. This law is set out at S24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
However, citizens do not have the same powers as police officers. Therefore, citizens are not permitted to detain a person for a prolonged period of time. If they do this, they may be guilty of false imprisonment. In addition, citizens do not have the same investigative powers as police. For example, hacking a suspected paedophile’s Internet accounts would be illegal if it were done by a citizen, though it maybe lawful if it were done by a police officer with a warrant.
If you are exposed by paedophile hunters, you will probably want to notify the police. This is because you, your home, and your family may be at risk of vigilante violence, therefore you may require the police’s protection. If the police perceive that you are in danger, they are obliged to assist you.
The film footage and other evidence gathered by the paedophile hunters will be passed to the police. This may lead to you being interviewed under caution and/or arrested whilst the police investigate the validity of the claims. If you are arrested, or invited for a police interview, you should obtain legal representation from a criminal defence solicitor, who will be able to offer you advice on your case.
If you have been the target of paedophile hunters, no doubt you are feeling extremely anxious and scared. Instructing the right lawyers will help ease your burden by knowing your case is in good hands. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, we will advise you of your options and give you robust and realistic advice on how to prepare a defence. Contact us today for no obligation consultation.