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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished in New York

by Gerri L. Elder

In New York, it seems that police officers are trying to entice good Samaritans into breaking the law.

Maybe there aren’t enough crooks on the street, so they have taken to turning people who are perhaps trying to do a good deed into criminals.

Have you ever seen a lost wallet or misplaced purse and picked it up with the intention of returning it to its owner? Well, you should be aware that you may be committing a crime.

Plainclothes police officers have been planting purses in department stores and then watching to see who would pick them up.

In one Macy’s store, three people were arrested when they picked up the purses. These people, who could have easily intended to return the bags, now face being indicted on charges that could send them to state prison.

Nine months ago the police orchestrated a similar plot named Operation Lucky Bag, but luckily enough prosecutors and judges had the sense to shut them down. There was great concern that the operation did not take into account the people who intended to return the bags, and that everyone who picked up a bag was considered a criminal, regardless of their intentions.

Operation Lucky Bag

During “Operation Lucky Bag” the police left shopping bags, backpacks and purses scattered around the subway system.

Then they sat back and watched the items.

Anyone who took one of the items and then walked past the police officers without reporting it was arrested. These items were valued at a few hundred dollars, at the most and therefore the “crime” of picking them up was a misdemeanor.

With the new operation, the stakes are much higher.

The purses that are being left lying around in the new operation have real American Express cards in them that have been issued to the police department under fake names. Now, with the credit cards added into the mix, the crime of picking up one of these bags is considered grand larceny.

Since grand larceny is a Class E felony, people who pick up the purses with credit cards tucked inside could go to prison for up to four years.

When police started these operations in February, 2006, out of the first 220 arrests, they found that 100 people had prior criminal charges and convictions on their records. However, that leaves 120 people that were arrested who had no prior criminal records.

Any one of these people, regardless of their past, could have just been trying to do the right thing, yet they were all treated like criminals.

Ten Days To Return Property

When a Brooklyn judge dismissed one of the cases, he noted that under the law a person who finds valuables has 10 days to turn in the found property. So, when police are making the arrests in these sting operations, how do they know that the person did not have the intention of turning in the property at a later time or trying to contact the owner when they got home?

The law also does not specifically require that found valuables be turned over to police. The judge also suggested to police that they had enough real crime to deal with without providing temptation for people to potentially break laws.

After the judge’s dismissal and admonishment of the police, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office dismissed charges in connection with the sting operation. Notes were added to the prosecutor’s handbook to clarify that in order to prosecute these types of cases there had to be proof that the person who found the valuables had criminal intentions.

Despite the law and criticism, the police have recently been leaving bags around the city again, this time with the credit cards in them. There are now four pending felony cases in connection with these sting operations.

In the four cases, the police describe suspicious behavior when the person picked up the bag.

So the next time you see someone’s lost valuables, think twice about what you will do. Strangely enough, you could be accused of a crime if you try to do the right thing, the wrong thing or anything at all.