The TV show To Catch A Predator helped push the issue of “chat room crimes” into the public consciousness.
In the show, officers from local police departments would pose as minors in online chat rooms. Those officers-playing-minors would interact with adult members of the chat rooms, who would solicit them for in-person meetings.
The adults would arrive to those meetings, where they would be questioned and often arrested.
What Are ‘Chat Room Crimes?’
In response to growing public concern about the safety of minors online and shows like To Catch A Predator, California added two statutes to its penal code in the late 90s and early 00s.
The first is PC 288.2, known as “Harmful matter sent with the intent to seduce a minor.” This law makes it illegal to send explicit material to a minor with the intent of:
- Sexually arousing yourself and/or the minor, and
- Seducing the minor
The second is PC 288.4, which prohibits “Arranging a meeting with a minor for lewd purposes.”
Depending on the facts of the case and the codes included in the charges, penalties for chat room crimes in California can vary. On the low end, first time offenders could face informal “summary” probation, while more serious cases can carry up to four years in state prison.
PC 288.2 – Harmful Matter Sent With The Intent To Seduce A Minor
In order to convict a person of a crime, the prosecution has to prove all of the “elements” of a criminal charge. “Harmful matter sent with the intent to seduce a minor” has four elements:
- That a person knowingly sent, distributed, exhibited or offered harmful material to a minor by any means.
- That they knew that the recipient was a minor, or they failed to exercise reasonable care to find out the recipient’s true age.
- They had specific intent to arouse the “lust, passions or sexual desire” of the defendant and/or the minor.
- The defendant had the specific intent to “seduce” the minor into a physical sexual act.
What Is ‘Harmful Matter?’
What actually qualifies as “Harmful matter” is up to some debate. There is a lot of nuance to obscenity law in California, so if this situation applies specifically to you or someone you love, we’d recommend speaking directly with an attorney for a more detailed interpretation of how the facts of your case apply here.
Broadly speaking, however, obscene material is typically “offensive” portrayals of sex that do not have serious “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” California is somewhat unique in that neither nudity nor sexual activity are — by themselves — obscene.
It all depends on how the nudity or sexual activity is portrayed in the material. This is another reason we recommend consulting with an attorney if this situation affects you personally.
Does It Need To Happen In A Chat Room?
A lot has changed since the 1990s, and not as many people use chat rooms any more.
However, this law applies to any method of communication, whether it be social media like Facebook and Twitter, online video games or “sexting” via text message. It can also include face-to-face communication, like physically screening harmful material to a minor during an in-person encounter.
What Is ‘Intent To Seduce?’
The most important element of this charge is the “intent to seduce.” If you have been charged with “Harmful matter sent with the intent to seduce a minor,” the prosecution must prove that when you sent the obscene material to the minor, you did it with the goal of enticing the minor to engage in a sexual act involving physical contact between the minor and yourself.
Even if the material is determined to be “harmful,” the prosecution cannot convict you if it was not done with the goal of leading to a physical encounter.
Example: Dave is 39, and he meets two minors in an online chatroom. After a few weeks of regular communication, Dave sends the minors pornographic images of himself and asks the minors to masturbate to the images.
While Dave could be found guilty of other sex crimes, if he never attempted to initiate a physical encounter between himself and the minors, he likely isn’t guilty under PC 288.2.
Penalties for ‘Harmful Matter Sent With The Intent To Seduce A Minor’ (PC 288.2)
Penal Code 288.2 is a “wobbler,” meaning that it can be treated as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the facts of the case and the defendant’s criminal history. If it is charged as a misdemeanor, penalties can include:
- Informal “summary” probation,
- Up to six months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000
If the defendant has a prior conviction for PC 288.2, any subsequent charges are treated as automatic felonies. If you are charged under the felony, you could face:
- Formal probation,
- Up to three years in California state prison,
- A fine of up to $10,000, and/or
- Lifetime registration as a tier three sex offender
PC 288.4 – Arranging Meeting With A Minor For Lewd Purposes
What happens if an adult contacts a minor (anyone under the age of 18) with the goal of meeting in person for a sexual encounter? They could be charged under PC 288.4, “Arranging a meeting with a minor for lewd purposes.”
Penal Code 288.4 has three “elements” that a prosecutor must prove:
- That a person arranged a meeting with a minor or a person they believed to be a minor.
- The adult’s actions were motivated by an “abnormal or unnatural” sexual interest in children.
- At that meeting, the adult intended to expose their genitals, pubic or rectal area, have the minor expose his/her genitals, pubic or rectal area, OR engage in lewd or lascivious behavior.
Abnormal or Unusual Sexual Interest In Children
In order to convict you under PC 288.4, a prosecutor will have to prove that you have an “abnormal or unusual sexual interest in children.” How exactly do they do that?
Investigators will collect logs, email records and voicemails of all of your correspondence with the minor, looking for evidence that your interest in the child was driven by a desire for a sexual encounter. Let’s look at two examples.
Example 1: Mary, 35, places a personals ad online seeking a rendezvous with a “young stud.” She eventually is contacted by and arranges a meeting with a 17-year-old male. Because the context of this relationship is purely sexual, Mary could be found guilty under PC 288.4.
Example 2: Tom, 44, lives alone and has few friends. He strikes up an online friendship with a 17-year-old minor.
The minor makes sexually suggestive comments to Tom, which he ignores, because he appreciates the company. After some time, the minor invites Tom over to his house, but Tom suggests that they meet at a cafe instead.
The minor’s parents discover the correspondence and report it to police. Because there is context in these conversations suggesting that Tom isn’t interested in the minor for sex, he likely wouldn’t be convicted under PC 288.4.
Penalties for Arranging Meeting With A Minor For Lewd Purposes (PC 288.4)
“Arranging a meeting with a minor for lewd purposes” is a wobbler. As a misdemeanor, its potential penalties are:
- Informal “summary” probation,
- 10-year registration as a tier-one sex offender,
- Up to a year in county jail, and/or
- Up to $5,000 in fines.
If you have a prior conviction for a sex crime, charges under PC 288.4 will be automatically treated as a felony, punishable by:
- Formal probation,
- Lifetime registration as a tier-three six offender,
- Up to three years in California state prison, and/or
- Fines of up to $10,000.
Lastly, if you attended the meeting, California state law includes a sentence enhancement that allows prosecutors to seek four years in state prison as a punishment.
Police Chat Room Stings
This brings us back to the subject of To Catch A Predator. Do local police departments in California actually pose as minors online and perform stings on adults trying to contact them?
The answer is yes.
Police departments often use chat room stings for publicity. It’s a way for a police department to show that it’s proactively protecting minors in a community from adults that are supposedly preying on them.
Here are some recent examples we could find:
- Sacramento chat room sting in April 2019 snares 24 adults
- San Joaquin County preparing ‘To Catch A Predator’ style sting
If you find yourself chatting with a minor online, there’s a decent chance that the minor isn’t actually a minor. It could be an undercover police officer.
Defenses Against California Chat Room Crimes
If you or someone you love has been charged with either of these “chat room crimes,” there are a number of defenses at your disposal.
“Robert really came to my rescue! I found myself under false accusations and he really came through. I was really freaking out, and Robert was able to make me feel like I was in good hands. I can’t recommend his services enough.”Drew, CA
As is sometimes the case with sex crimes against minors, false accusations can happen. These accusations can arise when a minor makes sexual advances towards an adult and is rebuffed, or in cases where an adult attempts to ruin another adult’s reputation.
When facing PC 288.2 charges, it’s often possible to prove that material sent actually wasn’t “obscene,” or that there was never any intent to “seduce.”
In cases where a person has been charged with PC 288.4, it is possible to fight a case by proving that the defendant had no “abnormal” interest in children or didn’t know that the person they were meeting was a minor.
As well, if the case is included as part of a police sting operation, it’s possible to fight a case by pursuing California’s entrapment laws.
An experienced sex crime defense attorney can help you understand the specific charges against you and help you build your defense. An attorney who understands California’s sex crime laws can bring out the facts in your case and use them to protect your freedom.
Attorney Robert M. Helfend has practiced criminal defense in the Los Angeles area since 1984, defending hundreds of sex crimes cases to successful results. Call today for your free case evaluation — 800-834-6434.