A few months ago, a pimp posing as a teenage girl used the Internet to persuade a 14-year-old Utah girl to meet him in California. The girl ran away from home and, when she met up with the man, was raped repeatedly and broken down in preparation for life as a prostitute.
The Utah Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force jumped on the case, using an administrative subpoena to track down the pimp's Internet Protocol (IP) address and location in Southern California. After a harrowing 48 hours, Utah agents found the girl and arrested her attacker.
A legislative interim committee recently heard testimony defending and debunking that type of subpoena, which requires not a judge's signature, but that of a prosecuting attorney. If a suspect is located and agents want to search his property, however, a judge would have to sign a search warrant.
During the hearing, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers objected to such administrative subpoenas, arguing that, absent court oversight, they could lead to abuse of power by law enforcement.
I count myself a fierce defender of the people's right to protection from overreaching, unreasonable search and seizure as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But when it comes to production or possession of child pornography, which involves excruciating sexual abuse that consumes and addicts its viewers, such subpoenas are a crucial investigative tool.
ICAC agents spend countless hours on the Internet searching for child porn. When they see it, they know the IP address. To find out more, they write up an administrative subpoena for the IP subscriber's name and address and sometimes phone numbers. To complicate things, however, the owner of the address might not be the same as the user.
And if the porn is being streamed live, "there are no second or third chances" to find the producer, said ICAC Commander Jessica Farnsworth.
A few years ago, I wrote a series of columns about the ICAC. I learned about the nature of child sexual abuse, which sometimes is streamed live online. Victims, male and female, can be infants, small children or older kids. They often are plied with alcohol or drugs. The addiction also can lead porn users to seek out children whom they seduce online.
In the California case, the predator, like many others of his kind, wanted live girls.
"The guy was throwing out fishing lines and he hit on a lot of kids," Farnsworth said. "Unfortunately, the Utah girl was vulnerable and took the hook."
I understand the worries of the ACLU and the defense attorneys. But when it comes to protecting children from grievous harm or death, the authorities need immediate tools to find and stop sexual predators.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.