Sting Operations and Entrapment

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

A sting operation can be defined as any effort by law enforcement to encourage wrongdoing, with the intention of punishing the offenses that result. Normally a sting operation is carried out by agents acting undercover, that is, concealing the fact that they are (or work for) a law enforcement agency.  

This area of law uses the general term agent to designate any actor that is working for or in cooperation with law enforcement. Of course, an agent may be a police officer disguised as a private citizen or an agent might be a private citizen, often a confidential informant who is covertly working for the police. The critical feature is that the agent is authorized to somehow promote the unlawful actions of others.  The ultimate goal of the criminal justice system is to punish the perpetrator.

Sting operations come in two basic types. The first type has the agent posing as a participant in unlawful activity, such as a buyer or seller of illegal goods or services. In a familiar example, an agent might seek to purchase or sell narcotics from a suspected drug dealer; if the target makes the sale, he is prosecuted.   The second basic type of sting operation sets up a decoy by having an agent pose as a prospective victim of unlawful activity.

The practice of conducting stings is controversial.  Some people feel that it is patently wrong for officers to encourage citizens to commit crimes.  Others regard the practice as a sound law enforcement strategy that preemptively protects the public from harm.  The defense of entrapment represents a judicial response that seeks to provide a middle ground between the two extreme positions.  The law of entrapment is a messy business. It is a complex amalgamation of judge-made law, statutes, and constitutional law. Because it is generally not strictly based on constitutional law, each state has its own entrapment rules.  

Key Terms


References and Further Readings

Attempt.” Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice.

Solicitation.” Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice.

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  09/12/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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