What the Entrapment Defense is and how it Works

According to jrank.org, entrapment is a defense to a criminal charge that is based on the premise that a law would not have been broken were it not for the actions of law enforcement.  To say it more simply, the police enticed you to commit a crime.  Courts most commonly use the “subjective test,” which examines the alleged crime from the point of view of the accused:  Were it not for the actions of law enforcement, would the accused have committed the crime?  Some states use the “objective test,” which examines the alleged crime from the point of view of law enforcement involvement.  Specifically, how far did police go to set up the trap that caught the alleged perpetrator?

Entrapment is a common defense when the accused is caught in any sort of organized bust.  Many people will, of course, attempt to claim that the police set them up.  While most claims of entrapment are quickly proven false, there are several circumstances of entrapment that resulted in court cases securing the rights of the accused. As a criminal justice major in college, these were among my favorite court cases to read.

The first broadening of entrapment occurred with the U.S. Supreme Court case Sorrells v. U.S. (1932) where, according to findlaw.com, the Court agreed that a person could not be worn down by undercover law enforcement officers posing as friends or acquaintances and then arrested for productions of trivial amounts of contraband.  Essentially, undercover police cannot go out of their way, particularly under a pretext of friendship, to convince a suspect to produce contraband when the suspect initially refuses to do so.  The ruling was affirmed with the Supreme Court case Sherman v. United States (1958) where, according to findlaw.com, a recovering drug addict working with federal agents repeatedly worked to entice another recovering drug addict to sell him drugs.  The Court affirmed that one could not try to convince someone to break the law merely to arrest them.

That is the major premise behind entrapment:  Law enforcement cannot entice you to break the law.  Busts can only be made against criminals who were breaking the law or suspects who were likely to break the law of their own accord.  Police cannot arrest a law-abiding citizen who was convinced, through substantial time or substantial effort, to engage in illegal behavior. 

Another example of entrapment would be setting a trap that even law-abiding citizens might find irresistible.  For example, if police officers left cash sitting unattended on a table in a public venue and then arrested anyone who touched the money, that would likely constitute entrapment.  Citizens who touched the cash may have assumed that the money was long abandoned and had no conscious intention of depriving the rightful owner.  When setting a trap to catch potential criminals, police must establish a scenario that involves the would-be criminals approaching with the intent of wrongdoing.