WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday that it would decide whether government agents may repeatedly entice a presumably innocent person to commit a crime, setting the stage for a major ruling on sting operations.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal from a 60-year-old Nebraska farmer who was sent at least 10 mailings by Postal Service inspectors trying to interest him in child pornography. Finally, when he sent away for a sexually explicit magazine depicting teen-age boys, he was arrested and charged with receiving child pornography through the mails.
The farmer, Keith M. Jacobson of Newman Grove, Neb., was given two years of probation and was disgraced in his community.
He was targeted as part of a nationwide sting operation to nab persons who were interested in child pornography. In 1986, Congress made it a crime for anyone to "knowingly receive" such material through the mails.
Federal agents had found Jacobson's name when they raided a San Diego pornography business in 1984. He had ordered two nudist magazines, neither of which was obscene or otherwise illegal.
In recent years, local police and federal agents have increasingly used sting operations to break up burglary rings, drug operations, credit card schemes and similar criminal enterprises. Typically, agents set up a phony business to lure customers who, in turn, are photographed and arrested.
But criminal defense lawyers charge that in some instances, the government is snaring persons who would not have committed a crime had they not been induced to do so. Under the so-called "entrapment defense," prosecutors have been required to show that the snared suspect was "predisposed" to commit a crime.
But last year, a federal appeals court based in St. Louis threw out the entrapment defense. It ruled that government officials need not furnish evidence to prove that the snared suspect was inclined to commit a crime.
There is "no constitutional right to be free from investigation," wrote Judge George Fagg for an 8-2 majority in upholding Jacobson's conviction. Agents need not have a "reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing" before they target a suspect and lure him into crime, he added.
Bush Administration attorneys endorsed that view in a brief to the court.
But, defense lawyers say, that view--if upheld by the Supreme Court--would give police and federal agents a free hand to entice persons to commit a crime.
The justices will hear the case (Jacobson vs. the U.S., 90-1124) in the fall.
In other actions, the court heard arguments on whether elected judges are "representatives," and therefore come under the terms of the Voting Rights Act. If so, civil rights lawyers could challenge electoral boundaries that prevent minority voters from being fairly represented. A ruling in the case (U.S. vs. Roemer, 90-1032) is due by July.