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Federal Sex Crime Investigations

This blog is the first of a three-part series that dive into Federal investigations of sex crimes and human trafficking. These crimes frequently go hand in hand. While not all sex crimes involve human trafficking, nearly all cases of human trafficking involve some type of sex crimes.

The development of social media and technology has created a playground for sexual activities, which includes a variety of sex crimes and an explosion of exploitation type offenses. The evolving world has placed enormous pressures on federal, state, and local prosecutors to protect the public from the perception of sexual predators everywhere. Young boys/men are not immune, as there has also been a significant increase in charges involving male victims as well. The perceived epidemic of these offenses on the internet has resulted in larger budgets for law enforcement that now take a much more aggressive approach to investigations of sex crimes.

This blog will look at the history and evolution of sex crimes before diving into the ways Federal agencies investigate them. Lastly, I will give you some guidance on things you can do and avoid when being investigated for sex crimes.

History of Sex Crimes in the United States. As far back as 1932, Congress gave the FBI the power to investigate child abductions following the Lindbergh kidnapping. Although, kidnapping is not a sex crime per se, this statute was the first step in allowing Federal law enforcement to investigate what had been a state issue – which was a foreign concept in the midst of the Great Depression.

The American “old” view of rape — sex forced upon another person – began to rapidly change in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, the passage of laws criminalizing “marital rape” rejected a long history of social norms that a man could not rape his wife. “Marital rape” is defined as typically a husband forcing a wife to have sexual relations with him. In 1976, Nebraska became the first state to criminalize marital rape. Seventeen years later, all fifty states had passed some version of a law banning the exception of marital rape. Prior to the passage of these laws, it was legal for a husband to force his wife to have sex with him. Even more recently, cases involving Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein have given birth to entire movements, such as Me-Too. These changing society values on rape represent but one type of sex crime.

In the 1990s, Chris Hansen hosted many episodes of Dateline, a program that introduced Americans to child predators who relied on the internet to find their prey. At the same time, the proliferation of crime-drams, such as Law and Order SVU, flooded the television airwaves with salacious stories of terrible sex crimes. Americans’ hatred for all things sexually perverse grew in large part to the drama portrayed in these television shows.

Society’s intolerance of sex offenders has risen lock step with the proliferation of computers and the internet. The sexual imagination of people around the world was unleashed with each technological advancement made with computers and smartphones. The result in the United States was an explosion of federal child-sex-related cases, such as child pornography, production of child pornography, receipt of child pornography, and coercion-enticement of a child.

Technology has created a number of new scenarios that are now known as “sex crimes”. Consider the young actor who sends you a picture of herself as a fifteen-year-old girl. When you receive the picture you are guilty of receiving child pornography. 18 U.S.C. § 2252A. This is just as true if the sender is a 17-year-old girlfriend who sent it to her 18-year-old boyfriend. When you text it to your buddy at work, now you are guilty of distributing child pornography. Id. Or consider a young adult man’s temptation to have a teenage girl take a picture of her genitals and send them by text or email. This later example would make the person guilty of enticing a minor to make pornography—which comes with a mandatory-minimum ten-year prison sentence. 18 U.S.C. § 2422. On top of that, the man would be guilty of both possession and receipt of child pornography, the latter of which contains a 5-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. 18 U.S.C. § 2251.

The time in prison for any of these scenarios can vary based on the facts of an individual case, but could include decades behind bars. These scenarios may seem far-fetched, but they are not. Today, men are serving lengthy sentences for what years ago would be a slap on the wrist.

Federal Investigations. Before sex-crime-cases can make it into a Federal District Court, law enforcement must conduct an investigation. What an investigation looks like in 2022 is as unique as the crimes they seek to stop. First, investigators can—and often do — hide behind computer screens pretending to be teenagers. By pretending to be teenagers, investigators lure in adults surfing the web – often in adult only chat rooms.

Likewise, investigators understand what many internet users do not — a digital footprint never goes away. Put differently, every key stroke on a computer leaves a trail of evidence for investigators to follow. For example, if a person sends a suggestive note to an FBI agent pretending to be a child, then it will be there years later for investigators. Inevitably an adult communicating in a chat room or social media platform like Kik, that person incriminates himself – leading to the FBI searching his home, and (more importantly) his computer.

The computer, tablet, or smartphone is the most sought after piece of evidence Federal investigators can have. A person’s devices contain, in most cases, every detail of his life. With the ability to track every key stroke ever made, there is no telling what else investigators might find hiding in the deleted cache of a person’s internet browser.

The critical step in each case is whether the person being investigated gave law enforcement a way in. Investigators will use any morsel you leave behind to get into a person’s computer. Once the investigators have a person’s computer, then there is good chance that person will be charged with some-type of serious sex crime.

It is important to remember that sex crimes investigation relies on technology, which is often filled with physical evidence. As technology evolves, so too will the manner in which law enforcement investigates sex crimes.

Things to do (and not do) if you are under investigation. The best advice to begin with is to never talk with law enforcement without consulting an attorney – no matter what you are being charged with. There may be some limited circumstances when an attorney approves his client discussing something with the Government, but this is the exception not the rule.

Likewise, avoid speaking with any other third parties about your situation. The fewer people who know your circumstances, the easier it is to prepare a defense. You do not want to create evidence and/or witnesses by making statements to third parties. If you confess something to a third party, then he/she will become a witness for the Government.

Also, never give consent and surrender your computer to any member of law enforcement. Make them get a warrant. If you voluntarily surrender your computer, then you may have compromised your case to a point of no return. Remember, especially for sex crimes, a person’s computer is the most important way for investigators to obtain evidence of criminal behavior.

Finally, hire an attorney as soon as possible. Even if you do not know for sure you are being investigated but have suspicions you might be, then hire an attorney. Ignoring a problem does not cure the problem. The sooner you hire an attorney, the sooner he/she can work to help you mitigate whatever your situation might be.

Considerations for You. If you are being investigated for any type of sex crime by the FBI or other Federal law enforcement authority, then do not wait for the hammer to come down on you. Seek out qualified and expert legal advice today. Mark Satawa can help you maneuver these difficult waters. Call Mark today!!

Mark Satawa

Mark Satawa is a criminal defense attorney specialized in forensic DNA,
sex crimes, child abuse, shaken baby, medical child abuse, white collar,
and federal crimes.