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Africa Sting – Entrapment?

As previously indicated (here) a key FCPA issue presented in the Africa Sting indictments is whether offering to bribe or paying a bribe to a fictitious “foreign official” or a real, but non-participating “foreign official” can constitute a substantive FCPA violation given the influence and induce language in the statute.

Another obvious legal issue raised by the Africa Sting indictments is entrapment.

This is an area of law that is a bit “outside of my strike zone” so I went to the bullpen.

On the mound, Dru Stevenson, a Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law (here). With several entrapment publications (here), Professor Stevenson drops in today for a guest post on the law of entrapment and the legal landscape facing the Africa Sting defendants.


There are two versions of the entrapment defense, the “subjective test” (which is the majority rule, and focuses on the defendant’s predisposition) and the “objective test,” (favored by the Model Penal Code and about 15 states, and focused on the egregiousness of the government’s conduct). Given that this “Africa Sting” case is in federal court (brought under a federal statute, the FCPA), the court will have to apply the subjective test, because the United States Supreme Court adopted this rule in a series of five cases spread over several decades.

All federal courts use the subjective test; so this case will focus on the defendant’s “predisposition” rather than the actual government conduct in the case. The conduct of the FBI or their agents (including non-agency individuals recruited to act as informants or recruiters for the sting operation) will matter only to the extent that it sheds light on how much persuasion was necessary to convince the defendant(s) to violate the law, because this is one factor in showing “predisposition.” The same is true for the “inducement” or enticement (in this case, substantial kickbacks or bribes) involved – it will not really matter except to the extent that it suggests the defendant would never have committed the crime “but for” the undercover agent’s inducement.

Other factors that can show “predisposition” by the defendant are a history of committing similar acts, the alacrity/resistance with which the defendant responded to the undercover agent’s proposition, and the amount of time it took to entangle the defendant in the illegal activity. The subjective test is really a “but-for” test: “but for” the government’s inducement, the defense must show, the culprit would never have pursued such a course of action. It is important to keep this idea distinct from the notion of opportunity. The subjective test does not ask whether it was wrong for the government to provide an opportunity, or even if the undercover agents were deceptive or somewhat unethical in the approach that they used. It is a question of the defendant’s predisposition, which relates to both character and willingness, not opportunity. The subjective test looks at the defendant’s subjective preferences, choices, and history.

This is an uphill battle for defendants in sting operations, because the sting itself was planned out ahead of time to catch the defendant “in the act” with plenty of documentation about the time, place, and manner in which the crime occurred (stings are often on video!). It takes a lot of creativity and charisma to convince a jury that the defendant was actually not inclined to commit the act that he did in fact commit. The conventional wisdom among defense attorneys and legal scholars is that the entrapment defense usually does not work, and there is empirical evidence suggesting that fewer and fewer defendants use it each year.

There is also a significant hazard with raising the entrapment defense in federal court: the defendant’s criminal history becomes admissible evidence at the trial, where it otherwise might be excluded completely. Normally, the federal rules of evidence prohibit prosecutors from introducing the defendant’s prior convictions, because this could be so prejudicial for jurors (they might punish the defendant again for his previous crimes, regardless of his guilt under the present charges). With the entrapment defense, however, the defendant has put his own “predisposition” into issue in the case, arguing that he would never have committed the crime but for the government’s pressure. This opens the door for the prosecutor to submit the defendant’s “rap sheet” or “priors” to rebut his assertion that he lacked the predisposition to commit the crime.

The entrapment defense is, in fact, our country’s primary way of regulating sting operations. On a secondary level, the internal, administrative regulation of sting operations comes from the U.S. Attorney General’s Guidelines on Federal Bureau of Investigation Undercover Operations, which set rules for sting operations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the “FBI”) may conduct. The rules (see here) are the subject of modifications every few years, at the discretion of the Attorney General, and the last modification occurred in 2002, under John Ashcroft, mostly in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the reactionary “War on Terror” that ensued thereafter. These Guidelines help illuminate the type of planning that went into this sting operation, but provide no remedies whatsoever for a defendant who is the victim of entrapment. The Guidelines, however, are a contributing factor to the difficulty of prevailing with an entrapment defense – the FBI knows the rules, is required to plan the sting operation carefully before proceeding or obtaining funding, and will generally plan the operation so that they steer clear of providing a potential entrapment defense to their targets.

A final note that may be relevant for these FCPA cases: there is no such thing as “private entrapment,” and even the notion of “vicarious entrapment” gets little traction in the federal courts. By private entrapment, I mean solicitation to commit a crime by someone who is not working for the government – that is, a false friend setting you up to get caught committing a crime, or even a fellow criminal who makes an “offer you cannot refuse.” If the defendant was induced to commit the crime by a private actor, not working for the FBI, no entrapment defense is available. “Vicarious entrapment” is similar: this is the situation where a defendant was recruited to commit a crime by another defendant, who might actually have a valid entrapment defense. In other words, suppose the FBI really crossed the line and recruited otherwise-innocent Defendant A, who was not predisposed to commit the crime but was overwhelmed by the undercover agent’s pressure or enticements; Defendant A might have a valid entrapment defense. If, however, Defendant A went and recruited his ever-willing colleague, Defendant B, into the conspiracy, Defendant B does NOT have a valid entrapment defense. Defendant A’s entrapment claim is non-transferable.

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