Perverted-Justice.com: Police work outsourced?

Concerns raised about legal correctness of their work and a spirit of vigilantism but convictions hold up in court, even as Dateline broadcasts stings.

An interesting relationship is developing between local law enforcement and the website Perverted-Justice.com. The site puts its online volunteers at the disposal of police departments and the "Dateline NBC" show, where would-be pedophiles are busted live on TV in a coordinated sting, The New York Times reports.

Despite that publicity, the inner workings of Perverted Justice and its reclusive founder remain largely a mystery, even as the group has emerged as one of the most effective unofficial law enforcement groups in the country, a kind of Neighborhood Watch of the Net. But the group is also criticized by some legal and law enforcement experts, who accuse it of entrapment, making mistakes that ruin innocent lives and, paradoxically, disseminating its own brand of child pornography.

Peter D. Greenspun, a lawyer who defended a rabbi from Rockville, Md., caught in a “Dateline” sting arranged by Perverted Justice, said that by posting online transcripts of conversations between would-be child molesters and volunteers posing as 12- and 13-year-olds, Perverted Justice was encouraging, rather than deterring, pedophiles.

“They are putting out for unfiltered, unrestricted public consumption the most graphic sexual material that they themselves say is of a perverted nature,” Mr. Greenspun said.

Perverted Justice was founded by Xavier Von Erck, 27, a former tech-support worker who is apparently obsessed with the group's mission.

“Every waking minute he’s on that computer,” said his mother, Mary Erck-Heard, 46, who raised her son after they fled his father, whom she described as alcoholic.

“I have a low opinion of men in general,” he said. “The most heinous crimes in our society are committed by males.”

The site's volunteers create profiles on MySpace, posing as underage teens, and wait for email to arrive or they go into chatrooms. If there's a contact from an adult, the volunteer responds. Perhaps the conversation will become sexual and lead to an opportunity for a bust.

But isn't this entrapment? Generally not, since entrapment requires a finding that an ordinary person would be compelled to take the criminal opportunity presented by the ruse. Thus, an undercover officer pushing drugs on a suspect is considered entrapment but meeting a teen for sex isn't an opportunity ordinary people would be attracted by.

One concern about Perverted Justice’s nonprofessional force of vigilantes, raised by Lt. Joseph Donohue, head of the New York State Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, is that decoys impersonating teenagers may be too aggressive, not understanding the need to let predators initiate the sexual chat and therefore not gathering chat-log evidence that will stand up in court.

Mr. Von Erck responded that so far prosecutors had not dropped charges against any man arrested in an investigation begun by Perverted Justice.

Of the 113 convictions Mr. Von Erck’s group claims, some have been for misdemeanors resulting in no jail time, and others have brought stiff sentences, like the one of the Maryland rabbi, David A. Kaye, who on Dec. 1 was sentenced to six and a half years in prison on federal charges of enticement and traveling to meet a minor for illicit sexual contact.