Saturday, April 01, 2006

BREAKING LAWS TO CATCH CRIMINALS

Don Hull of Costa Mesa, Calif., writes that he is "outraged when police use entrapment tactics to catch lawbreakers, primarily because, to do so, they must commit crimes themselves in the process."

Among other examples, he cites police posing as prostitutes to catch unwitting customers or as under-age kids to trap online pedophiles.

Do police officers cross an ethical line when they pose as something they're not in order to catch a criminal? How about when they break a law to catch lawbreakers?

Send your thoughts to
rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on COMMENTS below. Please include your name, your hometown and where you read this column. Readers'comments may appear in an upcoming column.

9 comments:

Catbird49 said...

I, too, am uneasy with police posing as prostitutes in order to catch customers, although I wouldn't mind so much if they did this to catch pimps! However, "outlaws" by definition operate outside the law. How are the police supposed to catch them if they can't "go where they go"? Posing as teenagers on the web in order to catch pedophiles is not illegal to begin with. Anyone can say they are anyone on the internet, and if it downs another scumbag, I say more power to them.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, the police may use any and all techniques to catch criminals up to but not including the point of breaking the law themselves. Furthermore, if the police do something illegal to catch criminals, I'm of the opinion that the criminal should not be prosecuted for that particular offense and the person should have a right to sue for wrongful action.

I realize this makes law enforcement difficult. However, police need to follow laws just as citizens do. Laws outline the boundaries of acceptable action. If the police (or anyone) is not bound to laws they may do whatever they please for the sake of enforcement, strongly increasing the chance of our becoming a police state, as Hitler did in Germany.

Do police cross an ethical line when they break the law? Yes, always. If they don't like the law they should work to have it modified, not break it. Socrates so strongly believed in the principle of obeying the law, however unjust it may seem, that he died for it. What would our society be if the police, the President, or others in power were above the law? I think Socrates clearly knew the alternative of everyone not following the law.

I'm not familiar with the laws regarding what the police are or are not legally able to do. I'm not able to comment on whether or not posing as a prostitute is legal or what exactly constitutes entrapment.

Do they cross an ethical line when they pose as someone else? If this is legal, then no. If it is legal and we citizens don't like it then we should change the law.

I think this begs two questions: Is it ever ethical to break the law? Is following the law all that one is ethically responsible to do?

For the first question, I think there is one case where it is ethical to break the law. The action of dissent sometimes (often?) involves breaking the law. This is an accepted part of our democracy and therefore ethical. It is ethical because the intent of the action is to change the law for the benefit of all. (And usually involves more pain for the individual than personal gain.) In the case of police breaking the law to catch criminals, their intent is to enforce the law, not change it.

For the second question, I think the answer is no, but that's off the topic here.

Ron R.
Santa Rosa, CA
I read this column on-line

Anonymous said...

For an officer to pose as anything other than an officer in order to enforce established laws cannot be considered unethical... unless of course it's for personal gain. If so, then all undercover work is unethical. Let's be realistic, if we lived in a perfectly ethical society, then we wouldn't even be asking this question. However, because we don't, it is necessary for lawenforcement to sometimes even do things that go against their own personal values; but they do it. I do agree with the comment about catching the pimps vs the customer being perhaps more on the ethical side. As a society we need to take responsibility for allowing many criminals to go unpunished because "their right were violated." We need to keep reminding ourselves that vicitms also have rights that have been violated, and officers are trying to prevent from having more victims.

Anonymous said...

If it is acceptable for law enforcement agents to do whatever is necessary to catch criminals, where do we draw the line on their behavior? Who decides where the line is drawn?

Currently, the line is drawn by the laws we have. Our elected congress people (and others locally) make those laws, our executive branch people enforce the laws, and our judicial branch interpret the laws. This is the balance of power. Everyone is subject to the laws, including law enforcement people.

If law enforcement people were allowed to do as they please (make laws for themselves) and interpret the laws (i.e., decide who is a "criminal"), we would loose the balance of power. And who will enforce the law enforcement people breaking the laws, not being subject to the laws, or making their own laws about what they may do? Can you imagine what our society may become?

Without laws that law enforcement people must follow, the law enforcement branch has high potential to become the arm of someone in political power and the "balance of power" that has made our country's government successful would be gone.

Victims have rights and want justice. Potential "criminals" also have rights, the first of which is the presumption of innocence.

The law enforcement (executive) branch of our government cannot determine who is guilty (i.e., a "criminal") and who is innocent. The Justice branch does that and the process is one step removed from the enforcement step. Our laws require warrants from the justice branch allowing law enforcement people act in this Gray area. When enforcement people need to operate in this gray area (e.g., phone tapping and home searches) they are required to get a warrant by showing just cause. I think this should be extended to all gray areas. That way they can accomplish their goals while their behavior is controlled and monitored by a separate governmental branch, maintaining the balance of power.

Imagine law enforcement people tapping phones without a warrants, reading mail and email, doing warrantless searches, spying on private lives, and worse... on anyone they think may be a "criminal". Homeland Security are secretly doing these things today to people they feel pose a threat because they belong to benign organizations, and getting away with it so far. And this is with the laws we now have. Will it go further? I think we need to go further and clarify the laws we have now.

Without the requirement of law enforcement people to follow laws, too many innocent people become victims by the very people we are asking to protect us.

-Ron R.

Anonymous said...

Don Hull in Costa Mesa is outraged, huh? Well, most people are upset at the prospect of not getting away with something when they think they should. Now, I am certainly not saying Mr. Hull wants to do something wrong…but why isn’t he just as outraged at the people that need “catching”??!! I really have no problem with police (or other authorities, of course) posing as children to catch pedophiles. Who could possibly have a problem with that? It could be YOUR child getting in that kind of trouble. Hiding their cars to catch speeders? Sure, I just don’t care. See, I am not the one speeding so I don’t have anything to worry about. Entrapment tactics and the possible results still remain a choice – people do not have to make the wrong choice and get caught! This is about ethics bottom line – would you do something wrong if you knew you wouldn’t get caught? Police need to set these kind of traps because some people just don’t have the ability to discern right from wrong.

Their will always be people that think they are above the law. The ones with self-entitlement. If you aren’t doing anything wrong, why are you bothered by this?



For the people who truly believe that police are placing themselves in unethical situations in their work, I suggest taking a citizens academy course from the OC Sheriff’s office. It is quite enlightening and you may actually learn to appreciate those who serve our communities. (No, I am in no way affiliated with law enforcement!!...).

ER
Laguna Beach, Calif.

Anonymous said...

I feel that police who prostitute themselves in order to entrap "johns" is morally disgusting as opposed to them posing as johns to arrest prostitutes.
The former does not rid the streets of the problem but the latter does. Could it
be that arresting johns, fining them & confiscating their wheels is more profitable
than arresting janes?
Sometimes I wonder, who's who??

f. getz, Huntington Bch., CA Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

No, police officers don't break the law by posing in the examples given. Policewomen posing as prostitutes don't turn tricks, which is the proscribed conduct. If there is a law prohibiting representing yourself as younger than you are, then most women of the world are criminals. Finally, as a general rule police are authorized - and they should be - to break the law in order to enforce it, as when they speed in order to apprehend speeders.
We read you in The Orange County Register.
Volney V. Brown, Jr.
Dana Point, CA

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Don Hull has been caught doing something he should not have been doing! I have no problem with the police posing as something they are not in order to catch a criminal. However there is a limit to breaking the law to catch lawbreakers. I would not want the police murdering people in order to catch hitmen, or raping people in order to catch rapists! The police should not hurt innocent citizens in their effort to catch lawbreakers. I assume that the police has guidelines on how far to go.
Love your column. I look forward to it every Monday in the Orange County Register.
Monsie Crane
Fullerton, Calif.

Anonymous said...

I love it when cops impersonate targets of criminal activity, and catch
perps in the act! I don't consider it illegal at all for a female officer
to dress like a prostitute and see who stops to solicit. I don't consider
it improper at all when a cop impersonates a 13-year-old online and entices
a creep to a meeting. I hope they keep it up until more bad guys are afraid
of this method- because anonymity works both ways!

Anyone who is afraid of this sort of activity, in my opinion, may have
engaged in activities that can be trapped and they are protecting their own
activities. I don't even mind if cops end up breaking, say, a misdemeanor
or traffic law to catch a felon, but the degree of this activity needs to be
at a much lower scale than the intended target's violation.

John Minard
Huntington Beach, California

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