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Vigilantes are going about it all wrong

Throughout history, the romantic notion of an individual or group taking on evildoers when the establishment seems to be incapable of doing its job has always captivated our fancy.

Robin Hood, Superman, Batman, Zorro, the Guardian Angels. Each in its own way plays to our inner self that pictures us in another life as the champion of mankind.

Robin Hood, for example, was said to have stolen from the rich and given to the poor. The Caped Crusader comes to the rescue of an inept Gotham City Police Department. Superman is the savior of a crime-ridden Metropolis. Zorro’s sword cuts a Z into the chests of bad guys who terrorize the hapless in downtrodden communities.

Well, it’s safe to say that Musa Harris, the self-proclaimed Luzerne County Predator Catcher, will not go down in vigilante history, but he and a number of other ordinary citizens across Pennsylvania are making their presence known by being on the lookout for child sexual predators. Their motivation has been inspired by the Dateline NBC series “To Catch a Predator.”

While many applaud the concept of what Harris is doing, the fact that he is doing it can lead to a number of legal issues. While what Harris is doing is not specifically illegal, the process by which he goes about setting up would-be predators can be lined with minefields, to say nothing of the personal danger in which he places himself.

On social media sites, Harris poses as an underage teen in an effort to trap a prospective child predator, agrees to an in-person meeting with the unsuspecting target, then records the encounter and posts it as the ultimate embarrassment and humiliation.

Pennsylvania law requires that only a law enforcement officer acting as a minor is able to pull off this ruse legally and make it stick in a court of law. Making a recording of a person without his or her consent violates the state’s wiretap laws, but when it’s done in a public setting, the courts have frequently ruled that no crime has been committed.

While no criminal charges might come about because of Harris’ efforts, he is counting on the public exposure to call attention to the would-be predator.

Several legal contacts told me that someone outed in this fashion but not charged with a crime could have legal recourse.

Harris is not the only self-proclaimed vigilante who has taken on this mission. Others in Pennsylvania and across the country have been doing it, and their posts on social media are encouraging others to take up the effort.

In recent interviews, Harris said he has been doing this full-time for 18 months, inspired, he acknowledged, by the online videos he saw of others engaged in similar activities.

He creates online profiles and pretends to be a child looking for sex. After agreeing to a meeting at a public rendezvous spot, when the adult shows up, Harris starts livestreaming the meeting on Facebook for his legion of followers to see.

Harris claims to have had more than 150 of these encounters, including one with a Tamaqua Area School District employee, who thought he was meeting a 15-year-old. The Tamaqua School Board fired the employee in August after the video appeared on line. No criminal charges have been filed against the former employee.

There are reports that Harris was in our area during the weekend to try to snare two people who responded to his social media posts, but there are no immediate details on the outcome of these encounters.

Harris’ actions and motivations sound righteous enough, but in the end, they can be counterproductive. The vigilantes are trying to manufacture crimes that don’t exist. These require a full investigation by police and the district attorney’s office, and, according to criminal justice experts, cases such as these are unlikely to be sustained through the courts.

“They might have traction in getting the guy into trouble with his employer or society, but that’s a slippery legal slope if the person can successfully claim he was defamed,” a lawyer source said.

An insurance agent source said that it is unlikely that any insurance company would cover a rogue vigilante who passed himself off as a child to lure an alleged predator into a meeting who later sued for defamation.

While I am sure that all police departments want to get child predators off the street just as much as Harris and I do, these vigilantes need to rethink their dangerous tactics.

A far less dangerous alternative for those who suspect child abuse would be to call the state-sponsored ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 or the state attorney general’s child predator hotline at 1-800-385-1044.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.