TAP- Truckers Against Predators, a St. Louis-based Facebook page and group, exposes or attempts to expose child sexual predators by acting as decoys in online platforms, arranging to meet with them under a false identity.

To catch a predator, citizens really need to work with law enforcement.

That’s the message from the Camden County Sheriff’s Office after a man from Lake of the Ozarks was called out on a popular social media page for allegedly attempting to meet an underage girl in St. Louis for sex. 

TAP- Truckers Against Predators, a St. Louis-based Facebook page and group, exposes or attempts to expose child sexual predators by acting as decoys in online platforms, arranging to meet with them under a false identity, then live-streaming the confrontation — a public shaming or outing as it were.

Their methods though cannot be used in court, creating legal pitfalls for police attempting to investigate online predators besides being potentially dangerous.

According to CCSO Captain Chris Twitchel, state law requires an actual victim — a real underage person who has been or would have been victimized. The only exception is for law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are the only legal decoys allowed under state law.

With law enforcement behind the false identity, there would be a case for enticement or attempted enticement of a child, a felony, and the possibility of incarceration of an alleged offender. The punishment for enticement in Missouri is five to 30 years in prison.

RSMO 566.151 states that a person 21 years of age or older commits the offense of enticement if he or she “persuades, solicits, coaxes, entices, or lures whether by words, actions or through communication via the internet or any electronic communication, any person who is less than fifteen years of age for the purpose of engaging in sexual conduct.”

RSMO 566.151 follows up the definition of the offense with the caveat that, “It is not a defense to a prosecution for a violation of this section that the other person was a peace officer masquerading as a minor.”

TAP often acts as a 14-year-old girl, but there is no allowance under the statute for anyone other than an officer to legally stand-in for a minor in an enticement offense. And while the alleged predator may be shamed at home or work, potentially losing their job, there is nothing to step them from moving somewhere else without a criminal conviction.

In the aftermath of the allegations against the Lake of the Ozarks man, the Lake Sun received reports of the video from local citizens as did multiple law enforcement agencies. 

While the Camden County Sheriff’s Office is investigating, it is unclear if a case can be made. 

The conversations between TAP as decoy and the alleged offender cannot be used as evidence for charges. And the confrontation and video do nothing to help bring a case against an alleged offender. In fact, it potentially makes it more difficult to come up with evidence since an alleged offender could be more on guard.

Instead of public shamings that may or may not lead to a safer environment for kids, Twitchel recommended that people contact their local law enforcement agency for information on how they can help police uncover and investigate these crimes or to simply report enticing behavior observed in an online chatroom.

“Contact your local police, every department has access to internet crimes investigators or they do it themselves,” said Twitchel.

It is best to be wary of acting outside of law enforcement, Twitchel added, as the person who has been set up may already be under investigation by the police, and the social media exposure could corrupt the criminal case. Larger investigations of crimes against children at the federal and international level in which police are gathering evidence against rings of alleged traffickers and predators could also be disrupted. So while one person might be outed and shamed, there are 10 or 15 more in the shadows who would then go unrecognized by the simple investigative tactics of a non-professional.

Working with law enforcement allows constitutional due process system to function, Twitchel emphasized, and is much safer for the members of TAP and members of the public who might be incited to illegal violence against the accused. Just because you believe someone would have committed a sex crime against a child does not make it legal to harass or hurt them. True predators could also become more wary with the knowledge of these types of social media pages and be more likely to come to meet-ups armed and dangerous.