The Star-News


Tricking crooks a treat for cops

Sat, Nov 05 2011 12:00 PM Posted By: Tom Basinski

Even though Halloween was four days ago I thought I'd write about the murky rules that allow cops to trick a crook.

Police are allowed to lie to crooks, but the good guys must use care. My favorite lie is that an undercover cop must disclose his profession if asked by a lawbreaker. The myth of "a cop has to tell you if he's a narc" started more than 40 years ago. It not only grew legs. It grew hands, arms, a trunk and head.

No one knows exactly where the lie originated, but it's a safe bet a cop started it. When I was buying dope and arresting hookers they would look at me with suspicion and ask, "Are you a cop? You gotta tell me you know."

"Yeah, I know," I'd say. Then, I'd either snarl at them that I wasn't a pig or I'd become sincere and promise I wasn't a cop. No matter how many times they are fooled, crooks still buy that today, and I'm glad.

There are certain things you can't say. For example, convictions have been overturned because an officer told a suspect, "I'm here to help you." What the cop meant was, "I'm here to help you go to prison." The courts ruled that to give a prisoner in police custody the feeling that the police would help him was blatantly misleading and might violate his rights.

There are rules forbidding arresting someone inside his house when you had only probable cause but not an arrest warrant. Somehow we had to get the crook outside to bag him.

Officers would go to great lengths to get a guy outside. For example, if his car was parked in the street, the cops would summon a tow truck next to the crook's car, complete with flashing emergency lights. They would knock on the door and say there was a hit and run and ask if whose car it was. Of course there had been no accident. When the crook came outside to view the "damage" he was soon wearing handcuffs.

It really is a crime to lie to a federal officer, such as an FBI or ATF agent. Sometimes I would tell a crook, "You know, it's a crime to lie to a federal officer and you'll go to jail if you do." They would nod. The truth is that I was not a federal officer, and had never told them I was. If they fessed up based on my lie, it was OK. A few did.

Nor could we be too nice to a crook. For example, if we offered them food or drink during an interview it was viewed by some courts as "softening them up." Instead, I'd say, "I'm going to have a cup of coffee. Do you want one?" And that's how it went.

Recently the cold case guys nabbed a suspect in a murder case. They knew he did it, but needed a confession. The killer had sold the gun to another crook. Unbeknownst to the killer, the murder weapon had been confiscated by another agency in an unrelated case; but, unfortunately, the agency destroyed the gun after several years.

During the interview the detective brought out an identical gun in an evidence bag and said, "I'm sure you recognize this." The killer looked at the gun, thought it was the gun he used to shoot the victim, and he confessed. Perfectly legal.

So, the bottom line is you can trick a crook, but you must be selective and careful about how you lied or tricked him. And you had to follow the rules.

Basinski never went to confession after lying to a crook because those lies were OK.


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