One of the most common methods that law enforcement agencies use to catch would-be child sexual abusers is the online sting operation. Police officers will post profiles or ads on sites like Craigslist, pretending to either be an underage person or pretending to offer an underage person for sex. People respond to the posts, agree to meet at a specific location, then get arrested when they arrive.

These tactics are common, effective, and usually perfectly legal. But do they always catch people with criminal intentions? Or is there room for miscommunication and confusion in these interactions that lead to wrongful arrest and convictions?

This was the subject of a recent and in-depth article in the New York Times Magazine. The article’s author described the aggressive efforts of law enforcement agencies in Washington State to catch online sexual predators by using the tactics described above. These operations have apparently resulted in nearly 300 arrests since 2015.

But the Times article also profiled one case of a 20-year-old man who was arrested for allegedly trying to entice a 13-year-old girl (actually an undercover officer) who had posted on Craigslist. He was awkward and an avid gamer, and she seemed to perfectly match his interests.

Based on the details of the exchanges between the two, he seemed genuinely confused about the girl’s age. She claimed to be 13, but a picture she posted made it look like she was in her 20s (she was actually an adult law enforcement officer). When she said she was 13, the man even asked: “you mean 23?”

They met up just 3.5 hours after first exchanging emails – not a lot of time to sort out seemingly conflicting information from someone you just met. When he went inside the house, the girl disappeared into a room and two other officers placed him under arrest.

When being interviewed for the NYT article, the man gave several details about things that the “girl” said which seemed to suggest she was older than she claimed to be. This was also a young man who still lived with his mom and primarily lived life online because it was easier for him to connect emotionally than it was in person. He had no criminal record and there was no other incriminating evidence found on his electronic devices.

To be sure, stating that one is a minor in text messages would likely be enough evidence for a conviction if the suspect chose to act despite knowing the age. However, this case demonstrates that these online stings are not always clear-cut cases of perpetrators with criminal intent.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a sex crime, the details are critically important. To protect your rights and freedom, contact an experienced and aggressive criminal defense attorney for help.