This is on the front page of the Santa rosa, CA Press Democrat
Attorneys raise questions about arrests made in Petaluma as part of Dateline's, 'To Catch a Predator.'
By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Defense attorneys are raising legal and ethical questions about the collaboration among police, TV producers and a self-proclaimed vigilante group that provided critical evidence in the arrests of 29 men in a "sex-predator sting" in Petaluma last year.
Fourteen of the 29 men arrested over three days last August during a filming of "Dateline NBC's" popular "To Catch a Predator" series are fighting felony charges of attempted lewd and lascivious conduct with a child.
Their cases hinge on whether judges and juries believe police followed proper legal procedures in collecting evidence while ensuring defendants' rights aren't violated by an overzealous desire to catch men suspected of sexually preying on children.
"I'm not against stopping child molesters or predators," said Santa Rosa attorney Steven Turer, who represents two men nabbed in the sting. "But when you kind of seduce people whose behavior is otherwise law-abiding, it's not fair and it's not right."
The biggest fish caught in the net, a successful, married cancer doctor from the East Bay, is represented by a high-powered Los Angeles attorney who has thus far provided the most vigorous defense to the charges.
Blair Berk, the attorney for Dr. Maurice Wolin of Piedmont, argued in court this week that Petaluma police and "vigilante informants" from the advocacy group Perverted Justice illegally entrapped her client.
Wolin also challenged the authenticity of the chat logs Perverted Justice provided to police allegedly showing his intent to commit the illegal acts and the motivation of police and Perverted Justice decoys used in the sting.
On Monday, two local attorneys, Bob Bratberg and Wallace Coppock, representing another man arrested in the sting, will ask Judge René Chouteau to order prosecutors to turn over records of any negotiations between Petaluma police, NBC and Perverted Justice.
"It goes to bias," Coppock said. "We also may argue at some point about discriminatory law enforcement."
11 convictions so far
In court, prosecutors have dismissed the defense claims as efforts to divert attention from the issue of predatory behavior.
District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said he couldn't discuss details of the cases, but pointed to the 11 convictions so far and said he was satisfied with how police handled the investigation.
"On all these cases, we've worked closely with law enforcement and they have acted in a professional manner, as they do on a daily basis, to make this a safe community," Passalacqua said.
But Judge Raima Ballinger, who is presiding over Wolin's preliminary hearing, has yet to decide if she will accept logs of Internet chats created by Perverted Justice as evidence.
Issues of bias have been raised by other defense attorneys, who argue that Perverted Justice representatives have financial or other motives that could taint the evidence
Bias also has been raised by a former "To Catch a Predator" producer, Marsha Bartel, who in May sued NBC, claiming she was fired for questioning the ethics and motives of those involved in the stings.
Her suit says Perverted Justice doesn't provide complete transcripts from its chats and that network officials cannot independently verify the accuracy of the transcripts. She said police and NBC have cooperated so much that both sides' ethics are subject to question.
In Sonoma County, the reliability of the chat logs is shaping up to be one of the most contentious issues.
One of the most crucial issues for prosecutors will be whether judges admit into evidence the logs purportedly detailing Internet chats between decoys posing as minors and the defendants. Without that evidence, proving the men believed the person was underage and their intent was sex could be difficult, attorneys say.
In Collin County, Texas, prosecutors declined to go forward in 23 "Dateline"-Perverted Justice cases because they couldn't verify the evidence.
"We applied the applicable legal standards and ultimately found that the cases were legally deficient," one of the prosecutors said.
Turer said that in addition to questioning the chat logs' authenticity, he has concerns whether the decoys acted legally.
"They walked a very fine line between entrapment and nonentrapment," he said. "My client said no, but then she said, 'C'mon, I'm alone, why don't you come over.' "
He said if a decoy makes the first contact with a potential predator, it could spell entrapment -- defined as inducing an otherwise law-abiding citizen to break the law.
Question of supervision
Steve Spiegelman, who represents two Petaluma sting defendants, questioned whether the amateur decoys' unmonitored activities will pass legal muster.
Generally, citizens acting at the direction of law enforcement must adhere to legal rules similar to those of police. According to its Web site, Perverted Justice says its decoys can't be guilty of entrapment because they don't
work under police supervision.
"Who's telling who what to do? Who's monitoring what?" Spiegelman said. "When it's all said and done, there are so many mistakes and parts of it that are not reliable, the whole scenario is tainted. When some of these go to trial, that will come out."
Petaluma Police Lt. Matt Stapleton testified in Wolin's preliminary hearing this week that Perverted Justice decoys conducted multiday chats with potential suspects without police oversight. After a suspect was taken into custody, he said, a Perverted Justice representative would provide detectives with a printout of the chat.
In some cases, as in Wolin's, the transcript that police initially received was incomplete. Perverted Justice later provided fuller versions of the chats, Stapleton testified.
At issue in court has been whether the chats can be legally authenticated, given that no police representative witnessed their recording. Police rely on the word of Perverted Justice that they are complete and unaltered.
Editing chats denied
Perverted Justice has told police it cannot edit the chats, Stapleton said.
"They can e-mail portions of it, but they can't edit what they have in their computers?" Spiegelman said. "That's suspicious itself. I have no confidence at all that it hasn't been edited, that it hasn't changed form or that it's complete."
The alliance between the news magazine show and police, too, raises questions.
To maintain their position as neutral observers, journalists usually avoid alliances with newsmakers, including sharing information or otherwise assisting in police investigations.
But in these stings, NBC paid to rent the Petaluma sting house and provided all the recording equipment, Stapleton testified. No money changed hands, but Petaluma police do not have the resources to conduct such a large-scale, high-tech sting by themselves, he acknowledged.
NBC also provided its live video feeds and unused video outtakes to police for use in their investigations. For their part, police allowed "Dateline" host Chris Hansen first crack at interviewing their suspects, and then were provided unfettered access to the interviews for prosecution.
"It seems like police could do this on their own and keep control over it," Spiegelman said. "But they completely lost control by partnering with entertainment TV and a vigilante group. Police are in the middle saying they're in control, but who's in control of who?"