The new US Justice Department guidelines against entrapment strike an appropriate balance between the need for proper law- enforcement activities and protection of the individual. The overriding objective, after all, should be to uphold the ability of police officials properly to fulfill their tasks without violating the very law they are sworn to uphold.
The new rules, approved by Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, state that "entrapment should be scrupulously avoided" in undercover operations. But at the same time they provide that under certain carefully defined circumstances bribes can still be authorized to be offered an individual. In other words, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would presumably still be able to undertake the type of undercover investigation that led to the Abscam indictments last year, when agents posing as representatives of Arab sheiks offered bribes to a number of Congressmen and other public officials.
At least one of those lawmakers, Pennsylvania Congressmen Raymond Lederer, is basing his legal defense on the argument that he was a "victim" of illegal entrapment. That issue will ultimately be resolved by the courts. But it underscores the need for the type of official Justice Department guidelines just announced.
Worked out jointly by Justice and the FBI, the guidelines are on target in requiring high- level authorization for undercover activities involving public officials, overseas governments, and the news media. US criminal justice agencies must be absolutely beyond suspicion that they are using their authority for political purposes, as occasionally happened during the Nixon years when some agencies, such as the IRS, singled out administration opponents for investigation of possible crimes.
Yet, as the guidelines acknowledge, there may well be occasions -- for example, in dealing with organized crime or political malfeasance where time constraints are involved -- when law-enforcement officers will deem it wise to bribe individuals to expose possible illegal activity. The guidelines require that, prior to authorizing such a bribe, there must be reason to believe the subject of the inducement "is engaging, has engaged or is likely to engage in illegal activity" or is "predisposed" to enter into such activity.
The latter qualification -- allowing law-enforcement agents to induce criminal behavior because of the "predisposition" of the recipient -- will probably at some point come under review in the courts. Perhaps further clarification in that area is in order, since judging another person's susceptibility to misdeeds is highly subjective.
We thus feel a certain unease about the resort to bribes -- and other inducements to criminal behavior -- by police. Given the great technological resources now available to modern law enforcement, every effort should be made to avoid luring alleged wrongdoers into criminal behavior. The public needs assuring that officially sanctioned bribery will b e the rare exception, rather than the standard policy.