Sting operations are inherently deceptive covert operations designed to develop evidence of criminal wrongdoing, identify offenders and offenses, apprehend and arrest offenders, and facilitate successful criminal prosecutions. Sting operations are frequently replete with controversy and ethical concerns over whether such operations reflect acceptable standards for right conduct and practices by law enforcement and other agents of the government.
Typically sting operations directly involve one or more law enforcement officers; confidential informants; cooperating offenders or defendants; or cooperating members of the public assuming the role of enablers, accomplices, accessories, coconspirators, or potential victims that acquiesce to the actions of suspects to gather evidence of the criminal wrongdoing. Sting operations are common in many countries including the United States but are not allowed in certain countries. Since sting operations may be employed by law enforcement to address a broad range of crimes and may also use differing techniques, tactics, and methods depending on the operation’s immediate or long-term purpose, sting descriptions differ and definitions may vary.
For decades sting operations have been among the strategies employed by law enforcement agencies as one of many responses to crime. The operations are used in conjunction with other police tactics aimed at reducing recurring or persistent crime problems. The guidelines for conducting sting operations can vary from agencies with no formal policies, procedures, processes, practices, or protocols to the rather extensive undercover operations and confidential informant guidelines of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Elements of Sting Operations
The majority of law enforcement sting operations consist of (1) the identification of a targeted criminal activity or targeted offender or group of offenders involved in specific criminal behaviors; (2) the use of covert operatives, either law enforcement officers, surrogates, or both, operating under a guise or some form of deception; (3) the formulation of action plans, objectives, and goals that will culminate in identifications, apprehensions, and criminal complaints or indictments resulting in prosecutions; and (4) provision or facilitation opportunities for persons predisposed to engage in specific criminal acts.
Elements of deception are inherent and the operations may often require law enforcement cooperation with persons of questionable motivation and conduct. The forms of police deception in sting operations can typically include: falsehoods, withholding and distorting information, a ruse, use of provocateurs, use of confidential informants, development of false relationships, and the use of communications and actions to create specific false beliefs. The amount of deception involved depends on the type of crime that is targeted and the purpose and ultimate goal of the sting operation. In lengthy and complex stings in which deception is used for extended periods, known or suspected offenders are snared along with new offenders who also succumb to the allure of the opportunity presented. In these cases, police may use known offenders or early sting-related arrestees as surrogates to snare additional offenders.
Some of the more traditional sting operations can be relatively costly and human resource-intensive for the agencies involved. Costs may involve the purchase or lease of property, equipment, buildings, or facilities; the alteration of buildings or facilities; and the reimbursement, compensation, or indemnification agreement with cooperating individuals or entities for services for losses incurred by them in aid of the operation and other costs.
The use of undercover techniques, including sting operations, are considered to be highly effective tools in furthering specific criminal investigations and ultimately reducing and preventing a range of crimes including: white-collar crime, public corruption, acts of terrorism, organized criminal activity, drug trafficking, fencing of stolen goods, human trafficking, child pornography, prostitution, and other major areas of investigative interest. Almost all sting operations are highly effective at resulting in multiple arrests and high conviction rates.
Benefits and Detriments of Sting Operations
Sting operations, with or without cooperating human sources or confidential informants, can assist law enforcement in gaining investigative insight into the specific operations of criminal enterprises or the methods of operation by individual offenders. Such operations can be cost-effective and expedient methods of solving past crimes in addition to identifying continuing criminal enterprises and ongoing offenses.
Sting operations generally do not have specific time frames and are usually terminated when law enforcement determines the operation has produced sufficient evidence, or a desirable number of offenders are identified. Sting operations targeting specific crimes with the goal of reducing occurrences are often conducted for a predetermined period with controlled costs, and therefore the operations are usually less expensive to execute and more routine in occurrences.
Though potentially expensive and resource-intensive, sting operations may be especially beneficial as preventative operations when used in conjunction with problem-oriented policing or other proactive policing tactics focused on providing long-term crime reduction solutions and targeted problems. Sting operations have the potential of facilitating police investigations, increasing apprehensions and arrests, collecting information for development of intelligence, identifying nontargeted crimes, providing opportunities for locating or apprehending fugitives, promoting collaborative relationships between prosecutors and police, and promoting multijurisdictional cooperation. However, law enforcement agencies must consider and contrast the desired outcomes and benefits with the ethical dilemmas and legal challenges often associated with sting operations.
The anticipated potential benefits in detecting, preventing, and prosecuting criminal activity should outweigh any direct costs or risks of other harm presented by the sting operation. Consideration must include the reality that sting operations can prompt privacy and civil liberties-related issues and potentially compromise law enforcement integrity. Even when employed and executed by law enforcement officers with the purest of intentions and motives, sting operations may on occasion realize unintended negative outcomes such as increasing criminal activity. For example, some operations can conceivably and potentially increase crime by providing new opportunities to commit crime or result in government-inspired criminal victimizations, financial losses, and property losses. Furthermore, some sting initiatives may not measurably reduce the targeted criminal activity, or the reduction may be relatively short term.
Sting Operations and Entrapment
An improper design and execution of a sting operation can ultimately impede successful prosecutions and assist in establishing a successful defense of entrapment or outrageous conduct by agents of the government. Entrapment does not forbid undercover law enforcement officers from denying they are law enforcement officers or from posing as criminals. Generally, entrapment is only a defense if a suspect is pressured into committing a crime he or she would probably not have committed otherwise. The legal definition of exactly what constitutes the so-called pressure varies greatly among jurisdictions.
Entrapment is a commonly asserted affirmative defense used to argue that the police inappropriately lured the defendant to the crime and enticed or induced the defendant to engage in the crime through undue persuasion, repeated entreaties, implanted desires, threats, coercion, intimidation, manipulation, harassment, promises of reward, or emotional appeals based on need, empathy, sympathy, or friendship.
Each state in the United States recognizes the entrapment defense, which is contingent upon whether the offender had a predisposition to commit the act and whether the government’s construct or encouragement exceeded reasonable levels. The prosecution must overcome the entrapment defense by demonstrating the predisposition of the defendant to commit the criminal offense regardless. In other words, if entrapment is used as an affirmative criminal defense, the government must establish that the defendant had the mind-set to commit the crime before the representative agents of the government became involved.
Law enforcement must not become so overly aggressive in its zeal to conduct a fruitful investigation and enforce the law through the use of sting operations that it becomes the originator of a criminal design, implants the disposition in an innocent person’s mind to engage in criminal behavior, and then induces the person to commit a criminal act to facilitate prosecution by the government. Agents of the government can merely afford persons the opportunities or facilities for the commission of criminal acts and may deliberately use a trick, ruse, artifice, or stratagem incident to the provision of the opportunities.
Law enforcement and prosecutors must navigate a narrow pathway to construct a legally legitimate sting operation and avoid entrapment-related behaviors which would involve coercion or other forms of undue or untoward pressure to cause persons who would not ordinarily commit the criminal offense to do so. Investigators must be circumspect in targeting and engaging individuals only where there is reason to believe the individuals are seeking to commit a criminal act. Circumspection is critical because the eventual triers of fact, in determining the facts of the case during the legal truth-finding processes, will be confronted with two competing and conflicting questions if entrapment defenses are raised: first, did government agents induce the defendant to commit the crime, and second, was the defendant predisposed to commit the crime? These two questions go to the heart of lawfulness and rightfulness.
Counterterrorist Sting Operations
The morality of the motives applied and the ends pursued incident to sting operations have become even more pronounced with the proliferation of proactive counterterrorist sting operations. Though counterterrorist sting operations are not novel initiatives, such operations are not without considerable controversy. The underlying rationale of terrorism-related sting operations is that persons with dangerous dispositions present potential dangers.
Proponents of such stings argue the threats to national security and potential harm to citizens and residents demand the exercise of all available proactive policing strategies. Moreover, they argue stings and other covert operations are necessary if not essential for the recognition, identification, and appraisal of the risks presented by dangerous and potentially dangerous individuals so that appropriate police action may facilitate their arrests in advance of the commission of dangerous acts. Therefore, many in law enforcement argue that stings are vital for proactively addressing terrorism. Detractors contend that sting operations such as these are truly tantamount to entrapment and are used to ensnare otherwise law-abiding citizens and residents prodded into action by law enforcement.
In considering such arguments one must remain mindful that terrorists and other criminals who are motivated to harm or commit major crimes often seek and probe for like-minded individuals to serve as accomplices or enablers. Their pursuits can guide or direct them to law enforcement informants and undercover operatives in traditional settings or via the Internet in social media networks, as well as online law enforcement stings conducted through undercover jihadist chat rooms. Informant- and Internet-facilitated stings are important for gathering information and producing intelligence related to the inclinations and plans of homegrown violent extremists, self-radicalized lone-wolf terrorists, and terrorist organizations.
The law enforcement argument for the continuous and unabated use of covert operatives and stings is the need to develop an awareness of individuals with criminal intentions and criminal dispositions. Furthermore, the stings constitute proactive policing measures employed out of an abundance of wisdom and prudence to prevent crimes, inclusive of terrorist attacks, by detecting and disrupting terrorist plans and plots to preempt executions. Such stings can also be used to aid intelligence-gathering and analysis as well as the identification and disruption of future criminal threats. However, such operations are ethically disturbing if the government frames the device in addition to providing the weapons, finances, and other props, as well as logistical support. There are also concerns relative to whether the government is supplying not only opportunities and enablers but also contributing to the extremist or jihadist rhetoric that encourages the behaviors necessary for eventual terrorism-related criminal charges.
Morality of Sting Operations
Aside from the legal arguments and legal tests, moral opponents of sting operations sometimes posit the police use of deception in sting operations is simply a form of lying and lying is morally wrong. This, of course, is the view of deontologists who would say lying is always wrong from a moral absolutist perspective. The sting is acceptable if the outcome is positive, according to consequentialism. In other words, the consequence of an action justifies the moral acceptability of the means taken to reach that end. The results of actions outweigh any other consideration. Utilitarianism, which is the dominant consequentialism position, advocates the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and the more people that benefit from the particular action the greater the good.
Utilitarianism appears to be the view of law enforcement in arguing that the social benefits of a fruitful sting operation far exceed the ethical costs of using deception. They also contend they are representative agents of society charged with at-large protection of public safety and administration of justice by lawful means, not to mention having right motives regardless of the consequences of their actions. However, the point is not only one of acting out of the right motivation but also doing the right thing, and therefore the act itself should be morally right. Law enforcement must not only act out of duty but also according to duty or as duty requires. Stated differently, one should act morally regardless of the consequences according to deontology or Kantianism. This latter point tends to contradict arguments that the intended or actual results justify the deceptive practices associated with sting operations.
- Lassiter, G. Daniel. Interrogations, Confessions, and New York: Springer, 2006.
- Newman, Graeme R. Sting Operations. Washington, DC: Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, 2007.
- Turvey, Brent E. and Stan Crowder. Ethical Justice: Applied Issues for Criminal Justice Students and Professionals. Oxford: Elsevier, 2013.
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