WASHINGTON -- After years of refusing to get involved in legal disputes over undercover "sting" operations by police and federal agents, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider putting new curbs on the law enforcement technique.
A Nebraska farmer, convicted of buying a child pornography magazine through the mail, has urged the court to rule that it is illegal for officers to conduct a "sting" operation if they have no basis for believing that the person they target is likely to commit a crime.
A federal appeals court ruled last fall that an undercover operation may proceed as long as the officers do not engage in "outrageous" conduct that, in essence, forces someone to commit a crime.
The legal issue at the center of the case is "entrapment" -- a claim made by defense lawyers that their client was led into crime by police, and then nabbed when the crime occurred. That was a key issue in the famous "Abscam" cases when the FBI nabbed politicians who agreed to accept bribes from undercover agents; the Supreme Court refused to hear any appeals in those cases.
Entrapment also was a key issue in the drug crimes trial last year of Washington's former mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr., videotaped while smoking cocaine provided by an undercover agent.
In the Nebraska case, postal inspectors decided to go after Keith Jacobson of Newman Grove, Neb., after they found his name and address on the mailing list of a San Diego, Calif., dealer in sexually explicit materials.
Over a 2 1/2 -year period, the inspectors, using fictitious names, sent Jacobson surveys on his sexual attitudes, and offered him catalogs and brochures about sexually explicit publications and photographs. In response, he sought several of the items and was arrested when federal agents found a child pornography magazine, Boys Who Love Boys, at his farm home during a search in 1987.
Jacobson was convicted of receiving child pornography through the mail, put on probation for two years and ordered to do 250 hours of community service.
He claimed "entrapment," but a federal appeals court said he had not shown that what federal officers did was "outrageous." Moreover, it said, he did not need to reply to any of the offers he got from the federal agents.
A final ruling on the case of Jacobson vs. U.S. (No. 90-1124) is expected next year.
In another order yesterday on a separate case, the justices refused to hear a claim by NutraSweet Company, the maker of a sugar-substitute sweetener, that it has the exclusive legal right to use the pastel color blue on its single-serving packets of its product, "Equal."
NutraSweet had sued the maker of a competing sweetener, "Sweet One," which also is sold in a pale blue packet. A lower court ruled that no one can get a trademark simply on a color. The justices gave no reason for declining, over the dissent of Justice Byron R. White, to hear the case of NutraSweet vs. Stadt Corp. (No. 90-1255).