The NYPD Is Locking People Up for Crimes It Created Out of Thin Air

Operation Lucky Bag targets people whose actions hurt absolutely no one.


Paul Martinka / Splash News/Newscom

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) is still trying to lure unsuspecting residents into committing petty theft so it can lock them up.

Operation Lucky Bag began in 2006, supposedly as a way for police to put away people with existing rap sheets. Undercover officers would plant a bag, usually with money or other valuables inside, in a public place. They'd wait for someone to "steal" the planted property then make an arrest.

In other words, they were creating crimes out of thin air. If, indeed, they were crimes at all. Under state law, people who find property worth more than $20 have 10 days to either return it to the owner or give it up to police.

Unsurprisingly, the practice drew controversy. In 2013, several people adversely affected by Operation Lucky Bag filed a class-action lawsuit against the NYPD. The following September, the two sides reached a settlement. The police clarified that "a person picking up property that they find cannot be charged with larceny simply because they fail to return property to a police officer who is located near the site at the time the property was found," according to a January 2015 operations order provided to Reason by an NYPD spokesperson. Arrests can only be made if there is "a separation of any valuables from the rest of the property" (i.e., if a person takes cash out of a planted bag and discards the bag), if "a larceny by trespassory taking has occurred" (i.e., if someone grabs a bag hanging from a stroller), or if "an individual has taken property but denies seeing or possessing the property when approached by" police.

But police are still able to fabricate crimes—crimes that hurt no one—just so they can lock people up. Two recent cases illustrate the absurdity of this tactic.

On December 14, police planted a backpack outside a Macy's department store in Manhattan. The bag's contents included a laptop, an iPad, and a wallet with $40 in it, according to the New York Daily News. A pedestrian, Tamarit Orquidea, noticed the bag and picked it up. "I would have taken it to the precinct down the street from my house," she told the Manhattan Times last month. Instead, she got arrested.

Police claim that Orquidea walked by a uniformed traffic cop while carrying the bag and that she put the $40 in her pocket. Whatever Orquidea's true intentions were, she was not hurting anyone. Police had no way of knowing what she was going to do with what she found, and arresting her did nothing to help keep the streets safe.

The same can be said of Cinque Brown, who police entrapped using the same bag roughly 30 minutes earlier. Brown picked the bag up and failed to give it to a nearby traffic cop. He apparently decided not to and was arrested as a result. Neither Orquidea nor Brown represented a menace to society, but both were still charged, Orquidea with petty larceny and Brown with petty larceny and possession of stolen property.

"I just don't understand why this is still going on in this city—I really don't," Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Melissa Crane said during Brown's December 15 arraignment hearing.

Two nonprofit legal defense organizations—New York County Defender Services (NYCDS) and the Legal Aid Society—tell the Daily News they've represented at least nine people entrapped by Operation Lucky Bag in recent days.

I don't have the relevant data for the latest wave of arrests, but of the first 220 people arrested after the program's implementation in February 2006, more than half did not have a prior criminal record. The alleged point of Operation Lucky Bag, you may recall, was to catch repeat offenders.