03:14, April 08 269 0 theguardian.com

2017-04-08 03:14:03
Judge rules 'paedophile hunters' can continue posing as children online

Self-described “paedophile hunters” have welcomed a court ruling that will allow them to continue to pose as children online to catch sexual predators.

Legal teams acting for two men who were caught by the organisation Dark Justice allegedly attempting to sexually abuse minors had argued that the use of evidence gathered by such operations “diminished the integrity of the court process” and that the groups should be regulated.

But in a detailed judgment given at Newcastle crown court on Thursday, Mr Justice Langstaff ruled that there was no legal requirement for the activities of Dark Justice to be subject to controls. Cases relying on evidence gathered by such groups had been put on hold until the outcome of the test case was known.

Dark Justice – two men in their 20s who keep their full identities a secret – operates fake online profiles of minors, with photographs provided by volunteers. If someone arranges a meeting with a person they think is a child, Dark Justice waits with a video camera at the location and the resulting video is posted online.

A statement on the group’s website reads: “When conducting our investigations, we never approach anybody first. Instead, we set up a profile and wait for messages. When we receive a message, we reply immediately and tell them that we are underage.

“When talking to anyone, we always try to avoid sexually explicit conversation. We act young and uneducated on the subject, and we never encourage sexual chat or sexual behaviour. The people we talk to suggest a meeting, and at this point we take over and suggest a place where we know we can control what’s going on, and where we’ll be safe.

“When a person confirms that they are coming, and when our team spots them, we ring the police and report the crime ... As soon as they have been arrested, we go to the police station to make statements.”

Dark Justice claims there are currently around 40 active cases that it brought to police attention, 10 of which are awaiting sentencing. The group says its work has so far led to 42 convictions.

Sean, 26, from Dark Justice, who would not share his second name, argued that he and his colleague Calum, 22, were not vigilantes. “A vigilante is a person who takes the law into their own hands and hands out punishment for people,” he told the Guardian. “We’ve never once handed out punishment.”

Sean also denied that the group’s tactics constituted entrapment, saying: “At the end of the day, these people come to us. These people make first contact. These people make it sexual and these people ask to meet.” Langstaff said arguments around entrapment in relation to such groups should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Defence teams argued that evidence gathered by Dark Justice should be governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which public bodies are bound by. But Langstaff concluded that the members of Dark Justice had “acted as private citizens throughout” and, as such, “authorisation of them by any public authority to act as a covert human intelligence source was and is not required by law”.

The judge added: “The provisions of RIPA are directed towards the behaviour of public authorities rather than private citizens. There is no legal requirement for their activities to be subject to any of the controls that might have been a condition of authorisation.

“There may remain an argument that in doing what they did, Dark Justice did not act in the public interest to reduce crime, but rather acted in a manner contrary to the public interest by helping to create it where it might not otherwise have occurred.”

Michael Barton, chief constable of Durham Constabulary, said in a statement that the force neither worked with nor endorsed the activities of groups like Dark Justice. He added that there were concerns about their activities and that police policy was “not to forge a convenient, quasi-volunteer arrangement to somehow discharge the responsibility of the police to investigate crime”.

Sean and Calum, based in Newcastle, both quit their jobs in the digital media industry in October 2014 to focus on Dark Justice full time. They say their decision was made in response to government cuts to the police and that the project is funded by donations from members of the public.

“The government seem to think that it’s acceptable to leave children at risk by taking money away from the police and organisations that are there to protect children,” said Sean. “If you came and spent one day watching what we do, you’d have a heart attack with what we see. The numbers are scary. When we first started doing this, we thought it would be difficult to find these people, but it wasn’t. It was too easy.”