Are ‘Paedophile Hunters’ Breaking The Law?

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pedophile hunters

A number of self-proclaimed “paedophile hunters” have sprung up online over the last decade, producing video content where they track down and “expose” ostensibly predatory men who they engage in explicit conversations by pretending to be children.

Many of these content-creators are inspired by the former Dateline show To Catch A Predator, where adult men arrived at sting houses expecting to have sexual relations with a minor, only to be greeted by the stern face of NBC journalist Chris Hansen and the phrase “take a seat”.

But is any of this vigilantism legal?

Using a Carriage Service to Menace, Harass or Cause Offence

Posting material online which depicts people as child sexual offenders, even if you think it’s true, carries a real risk of criminal prosecution.

Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act 1995  outlines the Federal offence of using a  carriage service (such as the internet) to menace, harass or cause offence carries a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment.

The offence applies if a “reasonable person” would regard the conduct as “menacing, harassing or offensive”.

In 2019, Adelaide “paedo hunter” Richard Warner was convicted of this offence after he posted videos of his confrontations with adult men he had lured online in 2017 while posing as an underage boy. His actions were deemed “menacing” and “harassing” as they publicly identified men he accused of being paedophiles, including in some instances where they lived.  Warner was given a good behaviour bond.

The NSW Offence of Stalking or Intimidation

Police and licensed private investigations are allowed allowed by law to surveil, monitor and follow a person without legal consequences. Should a civilian take similar actions, they run the risk of being charged with the offence of stalking or intimidation.

Section 13 of the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 outlines an offence of stalking or intimidating another with the intention of causing the person to fear physical or mental harm. This offence carries a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $5,500.

‘Stalking’ includes:

  1. Following the other person about
  2. Watching or frequenting the person’s residence, work, business, or any place the other person frequents for social or leisure activities, and
  3. Contacting the other person through the internet or other technological means

‘Intimidation’ means:

  1. Conduct amounting to harassment or molestation
  2. Approaching the other person by any means including phone, SMS and email in order to make them fear for their safety
  3. Conduct causing the other person to apprehend violence or damage to themselves or their property, and
  4. Conduct causing a person with whom you have a domestic relationship to apprehend being injured

To establish the offence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that you:

  • You stalked or intimidated another person, and
  • You intended to cause the other person to fear physical or mental harm.

Whether the chosen target actually felt fear of physical or mental harm is irrelevant. That a person intended to cause fear is sufficient.

Explicit Conversations and Child Abuse Material

Engaging in sexual explicit conversations that involve minors could constitute the child abuse material, even if there are no actual children involved.

A number of offences exist at a State and Federal level covering child abuse material.

At a State level, under section 91H of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) makes it an offence to produce, disseminate or possess child abuse material with a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.

“Child abuse material” is material that depicts:

  • A child that is the victim of torture, cruelty or physical abuse, or
  • A child engaged in a sexual pose or a sexual activity, or
  • A child in the presence of another person that is engaged in a sexual pose or sexual activity, or
  • The private parts of a child.

The Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth), which applies throughout Australia, contains several offences prohibiting the production, distribution and accessing of material that sexualises children.

Under section 474.22 of the Code, it is a criminal offence to use a carriage service, such as the internet, to:

  • Access child abuse material;
  • Cause child abuse material to be transmitted;
  • Transmit, make available, publish, distribute, advertises or promote child abuse material; or
  • Solicit child abuse material.

There is a further offence under s474.22A of the Code regarding the possession or control of child abuse material via a carriage service, which applies whether a person intended to access the material or not.

Section 471.19 prohibits the use of a postal or similar service for child abuse material, while section 471.20 prohibits possessing, controlling, producing, supplying or obtaining child abuse material for use through a postal or similar service.

Each of these offences carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment.

In the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal case of R v Jarrold, the defendant had been convicted of the production of ‘child pornography’ for communications in a chat room describing intercourse with underage males.

In the course of the man’s sentencing appeal, the court remarked that “whether or not the material discussed in the communications was the result of fantasies or accounts of actual events was irrelevant”.

Several members of a Canadian “paedo hunting” group have recently been arrested and charged with multiple offences including the distribution of child abuse images. The group used sexually explicit photos, faked to give the appearance that the subjects were underage.

Leave it to Law Enforcement

As should be clear, engaging in “paedo hunting” carries a real risk of criminal charges, even if you think your actions are justified by a noble cause.

If you are considered about the welfare of a child, the best thing you can do is to share your concerns with police who have both the powers and capability to enforce the law.

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Jarryd Bartle

Jarryd Bartle is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology and Justice Studies at RMIT University and a consultant for the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative, which investigates claims of wrongful conviction and advocates for systemic reform to protect against miscarriages of justice.

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