That lost wallet you found in the New York City subway may have a surprising owner who will make him or her known if you happen pick it up. The New York City Police Department has been running a sting operation designed to catch career criminals and act as deterrence for theft in public places. But critics say that well meaning Good Samaritans and other innocent people are getting caught up in the NYPD's quest to apprehend criminals.
The sting operation, called "Operation Lucky Bag," utilizes the tactic of leaving valuables out in the open, ranging from a stray wallet with a small amount of cash in it to a pack of cigarettes, by an plainclothes officer setting them down and walking away momentarily. After leaving the bait out, the police monitor it until someone grabs it. If not returned to the plainclothes officer or a uniformed officer standing nearby the police move in to arrest the subject. But has the NYPD's quest to drive down the crime rate catching innocent people in the net?
The NYPD is no stranger to utilizing sting operation to catch criminals in the act. In 2011 the NYPD unleashed "Operation Takeback." a citywide sweep that was directed at criminal buyers and sellers of stolen iPhones and iPads. Critics of that operation say that undercover officer aggressively pushed their wares, arresting people who had no idea that the goods were technically "stolen." Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says of the program, "whenever the police department packages a program as going after hardened criminals it's very appealing. But when we find out that police are reeling in individuals who would not otherwise be likely to engage in criminal behavior, it raises serious concerns."
Operation Lucky Bag has actually been operating since 2006 and has operated in one form or another since then. Back in 2007, Lucky Bag was technically shut down prosecutors and judges over concerns it was arresting innocent people but that did not stop the NYPD from running a similar untitled program that upped the stakes with credit cards in the bait. Theft of a credit card is grand larceny, a felony.
The program has even come under criticism by elected officials. In 2011, Assemblywoman Grace Ming (D-Flushing) introduced a bill to outlaw the tactic. She said that she had received several complaints from constituents. The bill did not pass.
As the program evolved, the NYPD's methods of bait became more elaborate. "Bait cars," vehicles with valuables in plain sight are now used to target criminals who break into parked cars to steal the valuables. Police assure the public that the cars are locked so the suspect would have to take the extra step of breaking in to reach the valuables, but a recent arrest puts this rule into doubt.
Deirdre Myers was arrested in a classic example of a NYPD sting operation. On the night of her arrest she was outside of her apartment in the Bronx with her 15-year-old daughter Keyna when she saw a car racing down the block. The car stopped and then another car with plainclothes officer soon appeared. The first car's driver ran off and the occupants of the second car gave chase.
The first car had its car door left open so Myers and her daughter went to investigate. They saw what appeared to be bundle of money. Suddenly another set of officers pulled up and arrested Myers and her daughter even though they did not touch anything in the car.
Myers spent two year fighting the charges. In April, Judge Linda Poust Lopez found that Myers had not stolen nor shown the intent to steal anything and the sting operation had framed her. The Bronx District Attorney's office admitted that the bait car ad been unlocked. They will not appeal the judge's ruling. No word on what happens to Good Samaritans that do not fight the charges.