We like our police to be tough on crime and aggressive in investigating it. But we want them to be fair and honest, too.
When police cross the line, does anyone win? Even honest cops can be too zealous in trying to bust criminals. So the law recognizes some situations when justice isn't served by questionable police tactics.
Entrapment happens when:
- Law enforcement officials induce or persuade someone to commit a crime
- That the person (most likely) wouldn't have committed without being persuaded to do so
It's not entrapment when officers provide the chance or opportunity to commit a crime, like using bait to catch someone looking for the opportunity. For example, using a bait car to catch would-be car-thieves probably isn't entrapment, though some may disagree.
Likewise, arresting people who ask undercover officers to buy or sell illegal drugs or sexual favors typically isn't entrapment. It's the person's predisposition to steal the car or deal in drugs that makes for the crime.
Things would be different, though, if the undercover officer asks you if you want to but drugs, or points out a car that could be stolen easily.
In most states, entrapment is a defense you may be able to use if you're charged with a crime. It's not always easy to use, though. First, you have to prove the government induced or persuaded you to commit the crime, and it was crime you normally wouldn't have committed.
Then, it's up to the prosecution to prove you were predisposed to committing the crime; that under normal circumstances, any law-abiding person would not have committed the crime.
If you can show entrapment, it's very likely you'll avoid being convicted of the crime. It's a complete backfire for law enforcement.
Short of entrapment, law enforcement officials can make it difficult to prosecute criminal offenders. For example, in Atlanta, undercover police officers were accused of drinking heavily before a raid on bar where it was believed crimes were taking place. Several people were arrested, but a judge threw out three of the cases, and the prosecutor dropped the charges in the others.
It's not clear how much, if any, the officers' drinking played in the judge's and prosecutor's decisions. The fact they were drinking at all, however, raises questions about their judgment and the legitimacy of the arrests, both of which would hamper any criminal prosecution.
Another example is the Widmer murder trials in Ohio. After the second trial, it was discovered the lead investigator in the murder case lied on his resume and a police department employment application about his education and prior work experience.
Naturally, prosecutors were concerned that, in the third trial, jurors would question the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the investigator's finding that the defendant murdered the victim. Prosecutors had to devote time and energy to bar the defense from using that damaging evidence at trial.
Report Law Enforcement Mistakes
The vast majority of us appreciate what law enforcement officials do for us everyday. That doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye when mistakes are made. If you're involved in a criminal matter, make sure you tell your attorney about any misconduct or wrongdoing you think the police may have committed. It protects you, and the rest of us, from bad behavior no matter how well-meaning.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I file a civil lawsuit against a police department if a judge throws out a criminal charges against me based on entrapment?
- Is it entrapment if an undercover officer poses as a teenager on a social networking web site and posts sexually suggestive comments?
- What should I do if I think an undercover police officer is acting improperly while investigating suspected crime in my business establishment?