In January 2013, Jorge Luis Vazquez drove from Kissimmee to a home in Oviedo thinking he was going to have sex with a 14-year-old girl, according to Seminole County deputies. But Vazquez soon discovered he had been chatting online with undercover detectives, who arrested him before he even walked through the front door.
Vazquez, 34, later pleaded guilty to charges of soliciting a minor online and traveling to meet a minor, which each carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. However, the judge sentenced to Vazquez to just the four days he sat in jail before posting bail. He received no additional jail sentence. Vazquez is now living in a St. Cloud neighborhood while working as a house painter.
A Local 6 investigation has found that many like Vazquez who are arrested in Internet child sex sting operations receive little or no jail time. However, most are required to register as sex offenders, and some must fulfill additional requirements as part of their probation.
"When the police do a sting like this, the fact that so many people come out of the woodwork and engage in that, it's pretty frightening," said Assistant State Attorney Deborah Barra, who has prosecuted many of these types of cases in Orange County. "These sting operations are the only way to be proactive about catching these people who want to have sex with children,"
Local 6 examined five internet sex sting operations conducted in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake and Volusia counties between 2011-2013.
The busts resulted in 194 arrests. Of those, 21 cases remain open, including 6 defendants who failed to return to court and are now fugitives. Another 20 cases were dismissed due to insufficient evidence, the death of the defendant, or other legal reasons. The court records of four defendants have been sealed by a judge and are no longer accessible to the public. Two defendants were acquitted by a jury.
Of the 147 defendants who were convicted (either through a plea agreement or, in 11 cases, a jury verdict), 51% were sent to jail for a year or less, and nearly 40% received no additional jail sentence other than any time spent incarcerated while awaiting court appearances.
There are several reasons why a defendant might receive little to no jail time.
"A lot of it has to do with the facts of those individual cases," said criminal defense attorney Thomas Luka. For instance, he said younger offenders with no prior criminal record are often sentenced to probation instead of prison.
Some defendants are careful not to incriminate themselves during their online chats with undercover detectives.
"There must be a response back of a sexual nature," said Luka. "The undercover officer cannot be the only one talking about sex."
According to Luka, some defendants do not explicitly confirm their belief that they’re chatting with someone underage.
“He or she doesn't know whether this person is pretending to be 16, is pretending to be 21, or is really 41 years old,” said Luka. “The language has to be very specific. Without that language, you're left with having to plea the case out to some lesser offense.”
Barra agrees that not every person arrested in sex sting operations should be prosecuted the same.
“We have to boil down and look at each case specifically and determine ‘Is this person truly a child molester? ’” said Barra.
Local 6 found that 60% of those convicted were given at least some jail time, with most receiving sentences from one to three years. Ten convicts are serving sentences of five years or more, including two who were sent to federal prison for a decade.
Regardless of whether people convicted of these sex crimes were incarcerated, 80% were required to register as sex offenders.
“It never comes off your record,” said Luka. “You will carry that designation forever and it does significantly hinder your civil rights.”
In addition to registering with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, many were also ordered to serve sex offender probation under the Department of Corrections.
“A lot of people hear the term ‘probation’ and think, ‘oh that’s nothing’ or they’re getting off with a slap on the wrist,” said Barra. “Sex offender probation is not a light sentence.”
During their time under state supervision, those probationers must abide by a long list of requirements and restrictions, including a mandatory curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Probationers must complete a sex offender treatment program, avoid sexually stimulating media, maintain a driving log, and submit to DNA and polygraph tests. The rules even prohibit probationers from dressing up like Santa Claus or handing out Halloween candy.
Violations of sex offender probation rules can result in arrest and prison time.
“We see these people as dangerous to the community and as people that need to be watched,” said Barra.