2007-12-12 / Editorials

See Something Say Nothing

Several decades ago the producers of a television program called "Candid Camera" planted various items such as shopping bags, purses and wallets in public places such as subway platforms and park benches and trained hidden cameras on the "lost" objects to see how unsuspecting passersby would react. This innocent amusement garnered quite a few laughs when the program aired in those simpler times.

We now hear of an operation by the New York City Police Department that also involves supposedly lost or forgotten items left on subway platform benches. Plainclothes police note who picks up the item and apprehend him or her.

The setup may be similar to the television program, but the outcome is quite different. Police call it a decoy operation; it seems to us- and to a number of other people- that the proper name for this little setup is "entrapment". According to one definition we encountered, "A person is 'entrapped' when he is induced or persuaded by law enforcement officers or their agents to commit a crime that he had no previous intent to commit."

Aside from very real concerns about innocent citizens being misled into admitting to crimes they had no intention of committing, "Operation Lucky Bag", as the Police Department has designated it, can have serious consequences for well-meaning and unwary erstwhile good Samaritans who try to do what they perceive is a good deed. The planted items were once worth a few hundred dollars at most. Operation Lucky Bag "lost" items contain real American Express cards issued to the Police Department under pseudonyms. Theft of a credit card is a Class E felony- grand larceny. An unsuspecting soul who police claim they believe intended to steal the decoy wallet or bag could face up to four years behind bars. While "the law as a matter of policy forbids conviction in such a case", also according to our definition of entrapment, someone arrested and indicted under Operation Lucky Bag would have to retain a defense lawyer and go through the ordeal of a trial, unless a judge first threw the whole thing out.

As well as entrapping innocent people, Operation Lucky Bag also renders a tactic for helping to protect the safety and security of the people of New York City completely ineffective. Signs on trains and buses and in subway stations all over New York City recently noted that in the course of a year, almost 2,000 people "saw something and said something" in accordance with the MTA "If you see something, say something" campaign. There is no way of telling how many incidents were forestalled due to conscientious and alert citizens doing their duty to their city and their fellow New Yorkers. If the users of public transportation fear that their efforts to be good citizens will result in at best their being subject to apprehension with concomitant public humiliation, loss of reputation and standing and emotional upset and at worst their being arrested and charged with a felony that could earn them four years in prison, the "see something, say something" campaign will come to a swift and ignominious end. New Yorkers will see something- and say nothing.

The decoy program last year brought about the arrest of 101 individuals with a combined total of 761 prior arrests. This is commendable. On at least 178 other occasions, the bag left on the bench or seat was turned over to proper authorities. We wonder in how many of those instances the "lost" item was turned over after an ordinary citizen was subjected to public humiliation and suspected of a crime he or she had no intention of committing.

Entrapment is a highly questionable tactic that backfires at least as many times as it succeeds in the arrest of a true criminal. There surely exist ways of finding criminals with extensive arrest records and bringing them to justice that do not involve catching innocent people in the same net as the guilty. We are certain that the New York City Police Department, for which we have the utmost respect and admiration, knows them and will once again use them. Police manpower, the rights of American citizens and the willingness of the public to participate in a program to protect the safety and security of us all are too valuable to be wasted on a procedure that entraps the innocent.

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