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Safety and legal issues are involved in the recent operation to catch child predators in Lower Burrell

The idea is very simple.

The idea is very simple.

A grown-up pretends to be a youngster on dating and social media apps. They openly say they are young in online chats that often become sexual and then arrange to meet the target at a specific place.

During the meeting, the person behind the fake account confronts the potential child predator, often live-streaming or sharing a video of the encounter on Facebook or other social media, getting thousands of views, comments, and shares.

Things can get complex when it comes to filing charges in such cases.

Brett Hambright, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, said, “Although the intentions might be good, we don't support this behavior. According to certain Pennsylvania laws, individuals can only be charged with these crimes when they have contacted a minor or a law enforcement officer pretending to be one.”

The issue was raised this week when David Holmes, 54, from Lower Burrell, faced felony charges of child pornography, unlawful contact with minors, and corruption of minors.He was confronted in February by a civilian group that focuses on catching child predators.

According to a criminal complaint, Holmes believed he was chatting with a 13-year-old girl online and they planned to meet in a Lower Burrell parking lot for sex.

Shafiq Blake, who organized the sting and pretended to be the underage girl, did not respond to requests for comments. There is a Facebook page associated with him, Predator Catchers PA, that shows videos of his group and similar groups confronting suspects in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Texas.

Other civilian groups that expose predators have led to a teacher in Schuylkill County’s Blue Mountain School District being put on leave and the Bradford County coroner resigning. Many others resigned or were fired from their jobs or faced criminal prosecution. Another example is the Bradford County coroner who resigned as a result of these groups' activities. A teacher in Schuylkill County’s Blue Mountain School District was put on leave due to the actions of such groups.Many others either faced criminal prosecution or lost their jobs.

Hambright stated that people conducting these operations could endanger themselves and the public if a confrontation goes wrong. He mentioned that information obtained during a civilian investigation is not the same as evidence collected by law enforcement.

Because these operations are not carried out by law enforcement, some district attorneys in Pennsylvania refuse to press charges based solely on amateur undercover operations. Often, the information recorded by civilians is not admissible in court. Some police departments can use the information to conduct their own investigations and file charges.

This was the situation in Lower Burrell.

Melanie Jones, a spokesperson for the Westmoreland County District Attorney’s Office, stated, “It is the district attorney’s responsibility to prosecute and hold people accountable for committing crimes. However, the district attorney discourages vigilante groups from confronting alleged perpetrators because it poses a danger to themselves, the accused, and responding police officers.”

Jones said that an impartial investigation conducted by a legitimate and sworn law enforcement official will allow this case to move forward.

The Lower Burrell police, who filed the complaint against Holmes, did not reply to a request for comment on Thursday.

Making civilian predator hunters legal

In July of last year, a judge in Clearfield County dismissed charges of unlawful contact with a minor against a man because the case relied on evidence gathered by a civilian predator hunting group.

The judge determined that state law necessitates potential child predators to be in contact with an actual minor or a law enforcement officer posing as a child for the suspect to have broken the law.

Essentially, the decision rendered evidence collected by civilian child imposters inadmissible in court.

Now, a state lawmaker wants to change that.

In September, State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, introduced a bill that would authorize individuals to take on the identity of a minor in order to catch predators who solicit sex from minors online.

He provided an example in which a parent viewed their child’s phone, saw concerning messages, and set up a meeting with the individual without informing the child, feeling troubled by the interaction.

According to Gregory, because the adult who arranged the meeting was not a minor or a member of law enforcement, the district attorney was unable to prosecute the case.

“Understanding the impact on those children, the ripple effects of that trauma and where it leads, and our courts could not prosecute due to lack of evidence that it involved a minor,” Gregory said. “That’s what led me to want to make this change legislatively.”

He mentioned that most law enforcement agencies across the state lack the resources or personnel to conduct such operations.

“We need to take action and realize that either we need to improve funding for counties for these operations, or we need to assist the groups or parents who are stepping in because they’re frustrated and upset that a case like this can’t be prosecuted due to a loophole or technicality,” Gregory said.

Gregory indicated that House Bill 1660 has support from both parties and is currently in the House Judiciary Committee.

Gregory proposed another bill that would grant civilians the ability to record conversations without notifying the other party, specifically for the purpose of apprehending a child predator.

“That would also be a tool that would aid these groups, and law enforcement, in using it as evidence in these operations,” Gregory stated.

He mentioned that the civilian child predator-catching groups in his area conduct thorough research and collaborate with law enforcement for prosecution. He believes it’s unjust to label these groups as “vigilante groups.”

“Let’s concentrate on their objective, to fill a gap that we, as Pennsylvania taxpayers, are unable to address ourselves, to fund what’s necessary for a district attorney’s office to have the essential resources, personnel, and training to protect our kids,” Gregory said.

Hambright chose not to give a comment on House Bill 1660. Kelly Callihan, who is the executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), mentioned that her organization has not officially taken a stance on the bill.

She mentioned that, in general, the district attorneys association believes that undercover operations meant to catch people who commit crimes against children should be led by law enforcement.

“PDAA understands that people who want to catch individuals who prey on children may have good intentions. However, there are concerns about safety when individuals confront potential suspects and accuse them of crimes. There are also potential legal and ethical issues with these types of vigilante cases that could harm a court case,” she mentioned.

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