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Do some New York City drug busts constitute illegal entrapment?

Americans are becoming increasingly critical of the way that our criminal justice system handles drug offenses and those who commit them. The nation's prisons are full of non-violent drug offenders (disproportionately minorities) serving lengthy sentences. The public now seems to understand that drug abuse and addiction are public health epidemics, not criminal cases.

Here in New York, law enforcement agencies are now apparently fighting the war on drugs in ways that many see as a waste of time, money and resources - not to mention ethically dubious. According to a recent article in the New York Times, there have been at least four recent cases in which undercover officers approached suspected drug users to seek help buying drugs. When the users complied, they were arrested.

In one case, a 21-year-old heroin addict was approached by a female undercover officer while sitting at a McDonald's. The officer gave the impression that she was an addict and would soon be going through withdrawal. She sought his help in buying heroin, and even supplied him with the money to pay for it. When he returned with the drugs, he was arrested and charged with felony drug-dealing. No officers went after the person who sold him the drugs.

In criminal law, the term "entrapment" refers to an illegal tactic in which law enforcement officers convince a person to commit a crime that they otherwise wouldn't commit, then arrest and prosecute them for that crime. Entrapment is different than a sting operation, in which police officers pose as participants in a crime that the suspect was already attempting to commit (soliciting prostitution, for example).

It is difficult for defendants to successfully argue that they were victims of entrapment, but cases like this certainly seem to fit the description. In the cases reviewed, undercover officers:

  • Made initial contact with the defendants
  • Proposed the crime to be committed
  • Supplied defendants with money and other resources to carry out the crime
  • Arrested only the suspect immediately involved and failed to go after the actual drug dealers higher up the supply chain

Thankfully, three of the defendants interviewed by the Times had been acquitted in jury trials, and the jury was deadlocked in the case of the fourth. But how many similar cases have ended in plea deals or convictions? How much taxpayer money has been spent pursuing and prosecuting low-level addicts?

If you have been charged with a drug crime or any other offense, it is important to understand that you have rights, and that those rights may have been violated. Before deciding to plead guilty, please discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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