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Undercover Sex Stings: Are There Legal Limits?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Undercover sex stings are common ways for law enforcement to make arrests for solicitation, prostitution, and other sex crimes.

But as some "innocent" victims of undercover sting operations can attest, there are limits to how much an undercover officer can push his or her suspect.

Here are a few guidelines that separate legal sex stings from illegal police activity:

Undercover Sex Stings v. Entrapment

In many cases, when an individual is arrested as a part of a sex sting or other undercover police operation, he or she will claim that the police made him or her commit the crime.

Entrapment is an illegal act by police in which an officer or officers induce a law-abiding person to commit a crime that he or she would not have otherwise committed.

For example, in many prostitution stings, the suspect arrested for solicitation -- shorthand for solicitation of prostitution -- will claim that he would not have agreed to trade money or drugs for sex without the undercover officer's "persuasion."

Unfortunately for those hoping to use the entrapment defense, in most sex stings, juries aren't likely to believe that someone who called up a prostitute -- with money and condoms on hand -- was really on the fence about paying for sex.

Conduct Must Actually Be Illegal

In some sex sting cases, an arrest is made based on a law that is unconstitutionally vague, making the arrest itself illegitimate -- also known as the void-for-vagueness doctrine.

When making arrests for "lewd" or "obscene" conduct, many state laws have failed to be specific enough to give suspects notice that they're actually breaking the law with their conduct.

Take, for example, a North Carolina man who was wrongfully arrested for flirting back with an undercover park ranger as part of a sex sting in the state's Sleepy Gap Overlook.

Casual flirting with an undercover officer, even one pretending to be a prostitute, is not (by itself) illegal. However, it is probably best to play it safe and avoid flirtations with sex workers in places where it is illegal (i.e., everywhere in the United States except Nevada).

Still curious about undercover operations or sex stings? You can pose your question to the legal community on FindLaw Answers or contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer near you.

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