Entrapment and the Culture of Desire

Does it matter if the young woman enticing you to take a trip between the sheets is really a police officer in disguise? When you are arrested for a sex crime, isn't this really entrapment? After all, if all you've done is talk you haven't really done anything illegal yet, right?

The defense of entrapment is far more limited than most folks realize. To succeed, a person putting on such a defense must show that the prohibited conduct of which they are accused is something they only did because the government induced them to do it. In a culture in which desire is used to market almost everything, can anyone real say that the government made me lust?

I see a lot of entrapment claims just now in the area of Internet solicitation scams. There is an active task force in Connecticut of law enforcement officers engaged in salacious talk in chat rooms. They look for a guy taking his libido for a walk on line, tell him they are curious, and then engage in all manner of salacious talk. Depending on how things progress, the defendant is then charged with solicitation of a minor, if he never leaves the comfort of his own home, or attempted risk of injury to a minor, if he shows up at a prearranged assignation. More than one of these young men has asked me whether they weren't entrapped.

Strictly speaking, the answer is no. One Connecticut case described entrapment in the following terms: "Entrapment is the inducement by a public servant or police officer of a person to engage in criminal conduct that had not been contemplated by him, for the sole purpose of instituting criminal prosecution against him. The defense is available to the defendant only if he would not have engaged in the proscribed conduct but for the inducement of the police officer." State v. Grant, 8 Conn.App. 158, 164 (1986).

Plenty of the language in this definition is helpful to the defense. Internet sting operations are designed solely for the purpose of instituting prosecutions. That's why officers troll pretending to be young teens.

But the defense fails typically for several important reasons. First, the defendant is the one who travels to a destination, whether virtual or real, expecting to make contact with a young person ready, willing and able to perform prohibited acts. No one forces the defendant to log on and inquire about the sexual experience of a perfect stranger.

In addition, and here's the real rub, in a society as saturated with desire as ours can anyone really claim that an amorous assignation is not something they've contemplated? We're wire to procreate. Many societies repress and channel this instinct into forms easy to control: we've set these instincts free. Is it any wonder that transgressions are common?

I'm not blaming Madison Avenue entirely. Nothing about the sale of aftershave justifies the molestation of a kindergartner. But the so-called Romeo and Juliet crimes, where a young woman just below the age of consent yields, are troubling. How many models hit the runway before the age of consent? How is it that we can use desire both to entice and to punish? Uncle Sam in drag as a dominatrix?

I raise these broader cultural issues merely to provide a setting for the fact-bound sorts of inquiries that take place in a courtroom. Relaxed though our general standards may be when it comes to sensuality, the law is savage in its consequences for crossing lines drawn by lawmakers. Don't expect to defend successfully a sex case by blaming society. We're expected to toe these lines, even if they make no sense.

It is sadly common when representing a young man in an Internet sting case for me to say something along the following lines: "If it seemed to good to be true, it probably was." The sad fact remains that many young men, when their hormones are revving and raring, have lost just enough self-control to lose the critical insight necessary to distinguish fact from fiction. This should not make them sex offenders; it merely labels them immature.

Which brings us to the following and final point, and it is a point that I have never tested with a jury. Does a young man playing at sex on the computer really intend to engage in criminal conduct?

On the surface, I suppose, the answer is clearly yes. A person soliciting the attentions of a fourteen-year-old for purposes of sex violates the law. But how many people playing games on line really believe that they are interacting with another person?

The Internet informs, but it also depersonalizes. Read the comments section to an on line newspaper sometime and ask yourself the following: How many of these folks would really have said the nasty, vile and intemperate sorts of things they posted if they were required to post their real name? How many folks would own what they write?

Not many, I suspect. I believe the same to be true about young men playing on line Lothario. On line sex has replaced yesteryear's pinup, only the sticky fingers remain the same.

Young men ought not to be headed to prison for flirting with an avatar. Something other than vagrant desire and fantasy unbound should be required to make out a crime. The law as it is now applied makes no effort to determine whether the defendant in solicitation cases actually believes that his lustful interlocutor is really a child, or whether the defendant actually intended to do more than dream about an encounter.

Under current law, you play on line at your risk, and I advise against it for both moral and legal reasons. But I still think the law is wrong. I've seen young men guilty of no more than taking Madison Avenue a little too seriously go to prison. It's madness.

About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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