Proposed bill could create more 'predator catchers'

Sep. 4—A proposed bill that has garnered interest from a local lawmaker aims to change an element of a criminal law that might make it easier to use evidence collected by citizens who conduct online predator stings.

Should it pass, however, one local self-styled "predator catcher" with nearly 600 catches to his name doubted more will take up his mantle.

"Not everybody has the guts to go out and do it," said Musa Harris, the Luzerne County predator catcher.

Still, Harris said of the bill, "it's good for me."

Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, issued a memorandum Aug. 25 seeking co-sponsors for a potential bill that would allow "any individual to pose as a minor" and enforce the unlawful contact with a minor statute.

Rep. Jim Haddock, D-118, Pittston Twp., is among the potential co-sponsors.

Haddock said the law enforcement community's input will be part of legislation drafting process.

He stressed the goal of the proposed bill is to stop a crime before it has been committed.

"We are trying to protect children," Haddock said. "We are trying to alleviate a terrible situation before it happens."

The criminal charge of unlawful contact with a minor is specific in requiring the suspect's communication be with an actual juvenile or a law enforcement officer posing as one.

"At a time when our law enforcement agencies are suffering from significant staffing shortages and retention issues, law enforcement officers are often unable to devote the time and resources needed to catch the multitude of predators who prowl the internet for vulnerable children," Gregory wrote in his memo. "By allowing any individual to pose as a minor for the purpose of enforcing the unlawful contact with a minor statute, these predators may be less likely to target and prey on children."

Broadening the language beyond that would result in more potential "vigilante entrapment," said Lackawanna County Chief Public Defender Larry Moran.

The legal community should oppose the proposal, as should law enforcement, he said.

"Effectively deputizing people who by whim feel they are capable of righting a wrong is a very slippery slope I think that nobody should get on," Moran said.

Several of Harris' targets actually faced prosecution, mainly in Luzerne County.

Harris said prosecutors have brought criminal charges on his cases by alleging suspects made attempts to have unlawful contact.

Attempts to reach Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell and Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce were unsuccessful.

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570-348-9100, x5187;

@jkohutTT on Twitter.

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