Grindr and Crime in Australia

With new technologies come new forms of criminal offending. Whilst dating apps generate a lot of unnecessary commentary and panic, there do appear to be distinct patterns of offending associated with these platforms.

Grindr is the world’s largest dating app for men who have sex with men, and the most popular gay-oriented dating app in Australia.

A number of high profile crimes have involved Grindr, including the serial murders by Stephen Port (dubbed ‘The Grindr Killer’) as well as a number of hate crimes in the US.

In Australia, a Canberra man was killed by two teenagers earlier this year after they messaged him on Grindr. The details of this case are still emerging.

To be my knowledge there is no published literature looking specifically at Grindr-related crime in Australia.

To gain some insight on what Grindr-related crime may look like, the following is a broad thematic analysis of higher court decisions where the dating app was used in offending.

A search of the keyword “Grindr” was made on Austlii which generated 16 relevant court decisions. These were then culled down further for relevant themes.

A number of caveats need to be noted from the outset.

Reported court decisions provide a very small slice of the number of criminal cases that go before the courts. As an example of this, particular types of offending known to be prevalent on Grindr such as drug supply did not come up at all in the results at all.

Furthermore, many decisions are likely to not have mentioned Grindr by name (although a follow up search for “gay dating app” provided similar results).

Given these limitations, the following should be seen as a thematic look at potential trends when it comes to Grindr-related crime, and not an exhaustive look at the topic.

Blackmail and Robbery

A common theme in the cases outputted were the use of Grindr in order to facility theft, robbery and blackmail.

Some of the offending was quite sophisticated.

In DKN v The State of Western Australia [2018] WASCA 87, an offender (19 years old) arranged to meet a man (the victim) via Grindr ostensibly for the purposes of sex. In reality the offender, along with two co-offenders, arranged the meeting in order to commit an assault (it’s unclear if this was a homophobic crime). The primary offender met the victim in a park, whilst the co-offenders hid in some bushes. When the victim arrived all the men sprang to action viciously assaulting him and stealing his wallet and phone. The victim suffered life threatening injuries including bleeding to the brain and was hospitalised.

Other reported offending appeared to be opportunistic.

Both R v Dervish [2019] NSWDC 745 and DPP v Samas [2019] VCC 1746, involved men who arranged to meet their victims on Grindr for sex, only to rob (or attempt to rob) them afterwards.

The use of shame to blackmail users of Grindr was another key theme.

In R v KB [2017] ACTSC 344, the offender acted as a ‘pedophile hunter’ acting as a vigilante to trap ostensible sexual predators. The offender got his 16 year old brother (a co-offender dealt with in a seperate Children’s Court matter) to set up an account on Grindr. Although Grindr policies specify that users must be over the age of 18, barriers to access are limited. The younger brother then entered into an exchange with a man (the victim) in which explicit messages were exchanged. At no time did the younger brother give any indication he was a minor. The offenders arranged to meet their victim in person. Once in person they filmed the victim, falsely claimed the brother was 15 years old and threatened to expose their exchange on social media. The offenders then asked for money.

In DPP v Ruge [2019] VCC 345, the offender and victim were chatting on Grindr when the victim sent a picture of his face. In response, the offender responded noting that he knew his name and that he had a female fiancé. It’s implied he found the victim’s identity via a reverse image search. The offender then blackmailed the victim asking him to transfer money or he would message his fiancé on social media. They arranged to meet in person and the victim paid the money, the offender then asked for more. In response the victim went to police.

Sexual Abuse of Minors

Grindr has been noted amongst a variety of dating apps as a platform for grooming underage boys for sexual purposes. This was evident in the higher court judgments.

In DPP v Mackintosh [2018] VCC 1458, the offender (a trans male) met the 14 year old victim on Grindr when he was 22 year old.  The offender didn’t know the victim was 14 until they met in person, when he was told. Despite knowing the victim was a minor the offender committed oral, vaginal and anal acts of penetration with the 14 year old over a three day period.

In R v Adams [2018] ACTSC 333, the 46 years old offender met the victim who was 14 years old on Grindr. They exchanged messages before meeting in person where a number of sexual acts occurred over a period of months. The victims’s father walked in on a sexual act leading to a confrontation. The victim then called the police.

At trial the offender claimed he believed the victim was 16 years old.

This belief was found to be unreasonable due to the child’s slim build and other messages the offender had sent on Grindr indicating his preference for minors. The offender made a claim that he had adopted an ‘edgy persona’ on Grindr, in order to present himself as a risk-taker in order to attract other Grindr users. This was not accepted by the Court.

A similar sequences of events leading to contact offending occurred in DPP v Carr [2016] VCC 1629, Topuz v The State of WA[2017] WASCA 186, Commissioner of Police v Lloyd-West [2018] QDC 153 and DPP v Castles [2019] VCC 229.

Some non-contact offences were also noted.

In R v Philpot [2015] ACTSC 96, an offender (a Catholic school principal) plead guilty to child pornography charges regarding sexually explicit exchanges made with a 13 year old boy. The victim originally told the offender he was 16 years old.

Two cases involved non-contact offending involving a fictitious minor, both of which were overturned on appeal.

In R v Addley [2018] QCA 125, a female police officer posed as a 14 year old boy on Grindr exchanging messages with the defendant about a prospective sexual encounter. The defendant was convicted at trial, but the jury verdict was overturned on appeal as the appellate court noted a jury misdirection on the possible defence of reasonable belief the fictitious child was over the age of 16.

In Tasmania v Wykes [2019] TASSC 18, another ‘amateur pedophile hunter’ posed as a 14 year old boy to trap predators. He exchanged explicit messages on Grindr with the offender whilst explicitly stating he was under the age of 18. The offender and vigilante then met in person, where the vigilante confronted and filmed him, uploading the footage to YouTube. This information was supplied to police, The evidence was successfully challenged on the basis of improper and illegally obtained evidence.

Key Themes

Although this was a very limited look at reported judgments, a number of key themes arise in relation to Grindr-related crime.

Firstly, the platform appears to be utilised for both sophisticated and opportunistic forms of property crime including robbery and blackmail.

Secondly, the use of Grindr by vigilante ‘pedophile hunters’ raises serious ethical and legal concerns, particularly when innocent parties are blackmailed or maligned. The UK recently found that the actions of ‘pedophile hunters’ do not violate rights to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights. It appears (per Wykes) that such actions may constitute improperly obtained evidence in Australia in some circumstances.

Finally, it appears minors under the age of 18 years old continue to utilise Grindr as a means to explore their sexuality. This puts minors at increased risk of grooming and abuse by offenders.

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