Public defenders in Manhattan say the NYPD has reprised a ruse in which passersby are trapped into an arrest because they picked up property planted by cops.
The controversial initiative, dubbed “Operation Lucky Bag,” even drew the ire of a judge at a recent arraignment.
She saw at least two small-time larceny cases come in front of her on the same night, apparently involving the same backpack preloaded with a Toshiba laptop, an Apple iPad Mini, a book and a wallet with $40.
The defendants — unrelated — were busted with taking the item off a concrete traffic barrier at the northwest corner of Broadway and W. 34th St. a half-hour apart from each other on Dec. 14.
“I just don’t understand why this is still going on in this city — I really don’t,” Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Melissa Crane said at the Dec. 15 arraignment Cinque Brown, 41, who had picked up knapsack.
Brown was charged with petit larceny and possession of stolen property in the fifth degree for helping himself to goods worth $397.
An officer on the sting said Brown surveyed the contents of the backpack and suggested he had the chance to surrender it to a uniformed traffic officer.
“I needed the bag to go visit my family down south,” Brown allegedly told the arresting officer.
New York County Defender Services has called on police brass and the Manhattan DA to stop the operation for good. The lawyers question why, at a time when there’s a strong push by the city to minimize the number of minor arrests, Operation Lucky Bag is still in the playbook.
NYPD officials defended the practice, nothing that a federal judge “reviewed ‘Operation Lucky Bag’ and approved its continued use as a legal and legitimate law enforcement tool.”
The policy changed significantly, however, after the 2013 lawsuit. As a result, the city agreed to several policy changes. Cops were instructed that the simple taking of unattached property is not enough to warrant an arrest.
A bust is only to be made if “there was a separation of any valuables from the rest of the property,” such as taking cash out of a purse and dumping the bag.
And if an item is taking from a personal property like a “bag hanging on a stroller,” or if the subject denies “seeing or possessing” the property when approached by police, an arrest is also allowed.
A spokeswoman for DA Cy Vance Jr. said the office is selective about the Lucky Bag cases it brings forward.
“Our policy is to decline to prosecute these cases absent clear cut evidence of larcenous intent,” said the rep, Emily Tuttle.
Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Melissa Crane in April 2012. Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Melissa Crane in April 2012. (obamadems via YouTube) But detractors say the disadvantaged are the de facto targets and that it preys on people’s ignorance of the law.
“The NYPD does not need to be conducting morality tests,” said NYCDS executive director Stan German.
He questioned whether New Yorkers “actually know they have an obligation to turn lost items in” within 10 days. He fear the exercise may even have harmful crime- and terror-fighting effects.
“In this age of ‘see something, say something,’ it’s a little disturbing that we have the NYPD setting up abandoned property.”
City Councilman Rory Lancman will raise the issue at upcoming budget hearings.
“I want to know how much time and money out of the city’s budget is being devoted to trapping people of color for this nonsense that could be used for solving and fighting real crime,” he said.
NYCDS has picked up at least three Lucky Bag cases in recent memory while the Legal Aid Society picked up at least six in Manhattan.
The busts were scattered — at least one in Harlem, another in front of a library in SoHo and several in Herald Square.
Legal Aid attorney Ying-Ying Ma, who has a Lucky Bag client, said good Samaritans are falsely arrested and that the department is “criminalizing poverty and targeting poor New Yorkers who may be struggling financially.”
Tamarit Orquidea, 60, of Chelsea, was ensnared shortly after Brown in the same location.
“Women that have money tend to discard stuff in front of Macy’s or in the garbage,” said Orquidea, an East Harlem native.
She assumed the bag was “discarded” or “abandoned” but was stopped with it while crossing the street.
Police said she also walked past a uniformed traffic officer and noted that she took the $40 from the wallet and put it “into her right jacket pocket.”
She said she respects the police but that the “embarrassing” jam she found herself in was the result of a pointless procedure.
“There are crimes real crimes you don’t have to fabricate it,” she said. “Taxpayers money is being wasted.”