Entrapment Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Entrapment, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Entrapment?

n. in criminal law, the act of law enforcement officers or government agents inducing or encouraging a person to commit a crime when the potential criminal expresses a desire not to go ahead. The key to entrapment is whether the idea for the commission or encouragement of the criminal act originated with the police or government agents instead of with the “criminal.” Entrapment, if proved, is a defense to a criminal prosecution. The accused often claims entrapment in so-called “stings” in which undercover agents buy or sell narcotics, prostitutes’ services or arrange to purchase goods believed to be stolen. The factual question is: Would Johnny Begood have purchased the drugs if not pressed by the narc?

History and Definition of Entrapment

Entrapment is a legal term that refers to the act of inducing or encouraging someone to commit a crime that they would not have committed otherwise. In criminal law, the key question is whether the idea to commit the crime emerged from the police or government and not from the accused alone. It became an established legal defense in the United States in the late 19th century and was gradually adopted by other countries as well. The underlying principle is that the government should not be allowed to create criminals; they should only apprehend those who already are.

Examples of Entrapment

Suppose a police officer persuades an individual to sell narcotics to them, even if that individual had no previous record of drug sales or other criminal behavior. If the individual agrees to the sale and is then arrested, they may have a viable claim of entrapment. Similarly, if an undercover detective poses as a prostitute and offers services to someone who has not previously solicited sexual acts, the accused may claim they were entrapped into committing a crime. The idea is that the government should be trying to stop crime, not encouraging it.

Legal Terms Similar to Entrapment

Some of the legal terms that are similar to entrapment are due process, selective prosecution, and abuse of process. Due process refers to the fair treatment of persons within the judicial system, while selective prosecution is the act of singling out individuals for prosecution based on personal characteristics. Abuse of process is another related term that refers to the misuse of the legal system for a purpose other than what it was intended to do.