Kiddie porn case vs. chef began with a typical FBI tactic

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Federal authorities’ child pornography case against local chef Alex Capasso began with a bit of play-acting on line.

The way the undercover sting operation began — with an agent adopting a fake persona on the Internet — is becoming a common tactic to catch people committing sex crimes against children.

This summer, an undercover federal agent logged onto a website frequented by those who have a sexual interest in children and posted a message.

It was meant to sweep up people like Capasso, authorities say. It fished for responses using words like “taboo” and “perv.”

Authorities say Capasso replied to the agent’s ad, identifying himself as a “perv dad” and saying he was eager to view illegal photos — even ready to sexually abuse a young child.

Then the two started texting. That’s when, authorities claim, Capasso admitted to sexually abusing a child.

As the texts continued, the FBI said,  evidence kept mounting.

Sounds typical, says Mike German, a former FBI special agent who wrote a book about his experience. He’s now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center.

One of the things you learn a lot about in FBI training, German said, is how to covertly catch a bad guy without entrapping him.

“In undercover FBI training, entrapment was a major issue because that was basically the only defense left of people caught in undercover stings. They can’t say an alibi; they can’t say it was a mistaken identity. They’re left with little else,” German said.

In these cases, the entrapment defense is a lot like the insanity defense in murder cases: often invoked, rarely successful.

That’s because to prove entrapment, you have to show that a law enforcement official pushed you to commit a crime.

For example, if an undercover officer poses as a prostitute and you solicit the service,  you’d have a weak entrapment case. If, on the other hand, the undercover agent repeatedly pushes a proposition at you, and you have no prior record, you might have a case.

Philadelphia defense attorney Susan Lin said it isn’t illegal for a federal agent to be deceptive. In fact, It’s seen as just another tool to gather evidence.

“They are not bothered by that at all,” Lin said. “The question is: When does deception cross the line into outrage of conduct?”

It’s something she considers when representing clients who’ve been charged with things like child pornography through covert ops.

In those cases, she says, if she can’t claim actual entrapment, she’ll focus on whether any constitutional guidelines were ignored during arrest and trial.

If law enforcement stayed inside the lines, she said she’s left with only one option: pushing for a lower sentence.

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