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'True Detective' Legal Truths: Are Drug Stings Legal?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

The popular HBO series "True Detective" has captured the imagination of many Americans. Its first season, which is being released on DVD today, takes a gritty (and fictional) look at the seedy underbelly of rural Louisiana.

But with all the seemingly illegal things Rust and Marty do to catch their perpetrators, the show may leave viewers wondering: Are drug stings actually legal?

Here are some legal truths behind this aspect of "True Detective" that you may not have known:

FindLaw | True Detective: Legal Truths


Drug Stings and Rust Cohle

In the first season of "True Detective," Matthew McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a philosophical, distant, beer-can bending loner who had a somewhat shadowy past as a deep undercover narcotics agent.

The Huffington Post offers a good wrap-up of some of the more spoiler-y facts, but the bigger question needs very little background: Was Rust breaking the law by trying to sell drugs?

Yes and no. Let's start with what's legal.

On the local, state, national, and even international level, there are legal undercover operations in which law-enforcement officers buy and sell drugs in order to catch those in the drug trade. Rust's character had spent much of his pre-"True Detective" time as an undercover agent investigating biker gangs in Texas.

The simple sort of "controlled buy" sting operation is common to most police investigators. An officer posing as a drug buyer will approach a dealer and, while under surveillance, will purchase illegal substances from that dealer. Once the exchange is made, other officers will swoop in and arrest any of the suspects involved.

Even if the undercover agents are not police officers, either legislative exemptions or prosecutorial immunity will typically keep sting participants from being charged or tried for drug crimes.

Even without immunity from prosecution, these undercover agents are often not breaking the law by participating in drug busts because they lack the proper intent to be found guilty of those crimes.

And Then There's Rust...

Many of these exemptions and protection from prosecution only exist if you're an officer or agent acting in the scope of a law enforcement investigation. If you decide, like Rust, to go rogue, any illegal activity can potentially get you charged with a crime.

That includes:

  • Stealing cocaine from police evidence lockers,
  • Offering to sell that cocaine,
  • Participating in gang activity, and
  • Buying prescription pills from strippers.

For Rust, time may be a flat circle, but if you're convicted for pulling any of these "True Detective" shenanigans -- especially under federal law -- you may think of your time more as a long, straight line.

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