Should evidence gathered by vigilante ‘paedophile hunters’ be used in court?
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An academic has called for broader debate over the use of evidence collected against suspected paedophiles by ‘unregulated amateurs’.
University of East Anglia lecturer, Dr Joe Purshouse, said vigilante ‘paedophile hunters’ were mandated by online support but often operated outside the law.
His comments followed a landmark court ruling over a paedophile’s appeal that evidence collected covertly by vigilante groups breached privacy rights.
Judges dismissed the appeal – ruling the interests of children trumped someone being allowed to engage in criminal conduct.
Dr Purshouse, whose research focuses on human rights in the criminal process, said the result was not particularly surprising because the case focused more on the relationship between groups and the police, and less on issues of entrapment or any egregiously improper conduct by the hunters.
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“The case leaves hunter groups free to operate, even though they are unregulated, untrained and unauthorised in their activities, and the police routinely use their evidence to mount prosecutions,” added Dr Purshouse, who said the European Court of Human Rights may look at the matter differently, but that change would more likely start from the bottom up.
“We’ve already seen some groups trying to work closer with the police and act in a way that is of regulation, but we’ve seen others operating outside the law, smearing innocent people and even using violence,” he added.
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“Child sexual exploitation is a very emotive subject, for good reason. People want to protect children from harm, and that should be encouraged, but the policing of these crimes and securing convictions of offenders is a complex business.
“These groups gain a lot of followers and often take their mandate from the amount of popular support they receive online. But popularity on social media sites doesn’t necessarily convert to unanimous public support, and I think there needs to be broader debate on how best to deal with the issue of child abuse, rather than just entrusting it to amateurs.
“The police have to be very careful to produce evidence that clearly indicates that suspected sexual predator thought they were communicating with a child. In the case of paedophile hunter groups, those boundaries are sometimes blurred.
“Whereas the police tend to focus on higher profile, more dangerous and committed offenders, who have shown a willingness and intention to target children, paedophile hunter groups can sometimes target individuals using adult dating sites, and go after the low hanging fruit by putting temptation in the way of people who may be vulnerable themselves, or not fully understand the implications of the online messages they send.”
In 2018 and 2019, at least 28 crimes recorded in Suffolk referred to paedophile hunter groups, according to freedom of information data.
Police said that, while online activists have contributed to some convictions against dangerous offenders, the risks they take can undermine investigations and the criminal justice process.
Temporary Detective Superintendent David Henderson, from Suffolk police, said the groups were unable to target high priority offenders. As such, they diverted police resources, with some groups shown to use their activity as a cover for their own criminal behaviour, while not providing protection for victims and often putting people at risk from attack and harassment.
He said police applied significant due diligence to information received to ensure we have adequate corroboration and the required integrity associated with the material.