WASHINGTON — A FRACTURED Supreme Court April 7 said police cannot entice an innocent person to crime and then convict him, strengthening the defense against entrapment in a significant defeat for the government.
By a 5-to-4 margin - with Justice Clarence Thomas making a rare split from his conservative colleagues to cast the deciding vote - the court threw out the 1987 conviction of a Nebraska farmer and Vietnam War veteran for receiving child pornography through the mail.
The court said criminal suspects can successfully claim entrapment whenever police launch an undercover investigation that itself convinces them to break the law.
"In their zeal to enforce the law ... government agents may not originate a criminal design, implant in an innocent person's mind the disposition to commit a criminal act, and then induce commission of the crime so that the government may prosecute," Justice Byron White wrote for the majority.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing the dissent, said the court was making it more difficult for police to do their work.
"Today, the court holds that government conduct may be considered to create a predisposition to commit a crime, even before any government action to induce the commission of the crime," wrote Justice O'Connor. "In my view, this holding changes entrapment doctrine." Victory for airlines
The Supreme Court let stand a decision that two of the nation's largest airlines did not violate antitrust laws by making competitors pay to be listed in computerized reservation systems now used by most travel agents.
The court, without comment, declined to disturb a ruling of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals that United Air Lines and American Airlines are permitted to charge listing fees without violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. Appeal decision stands
The Supreme Court also let stand a decision that the government forfeits its right to appeal a sentence when it enters a plea agreement specifically barring the suspect from appealing.
The court, without comment, declined to review a ruling of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals prohibiting the government from appealing the sentence given to a woman with whom it had reached a plea bargain.
The government believed the district court imposed too light a sentence and appealed to have the sentence increased.
Under the precise arrangements of the plea bargain, the woman was precluded from appealing if the sentence had been longer than she expected, but there was no mention of such a restriction on the government.
The appeals court said the government, in approving the plea bargain, "must be held to have implicitly cast its lot with the district court, as the defendant explicitly did." Insurance responsibilities
The Supreme Court agreed to decide if states can require employers who provide health insurance to continue to provide the same level of insurance to a worker injured on the job.
Both Connecticut and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring companies that provide insurance to continue providing the same level of health care coverage for up to a year for an employee who is receiving or eligible to receive workers' compensation benefits.
While the Connecticut law has been upheld, the district law was struck down in November as a violation of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Publication tax to be heard
The Supreme Court also agreed to decide a major tax issue involving billions of dollars that could affect the resale value of newspapers, magazines, banks and insurance companies.
The court next term will decide if a company that bought a chain of newspapers can deduct from its federal income tax as a "depreciable" asset the value of the chain's subscriber list.
The 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals said such a deduction is not allowed, a decision that also applies to customer lists after sales of such businesses as banks, insurance companies, manufacturers and real estate firms.
The result is that at least for now, companies bought and sold in the 3rd Circuit - which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands - are being treated differently for tax purposes from those in other parts of the country. The decision's economic impact is indisputably large, involving billions of dollars in business expenses nationally. Court hears abortion case
The Bush administration is again asking the Supreme Court to overturn its landmark ruling legalizing abortion, this time in a case about a Pennsylvania law that imposes a 24-hour waiting period and requires a husband to be notified. The Justice Department holds that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was wrongly decided and should be set aside.