1. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Question about how police sting operations work in thrillers.

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Ryan Elder, Jan 22, 2016.

    I was thinking of ending my story with one, where the police set up a sting to catch the villain in the act, so to speak.

    But there is one thing about sting operations and the legal system, that I am having trouble understanding. When you set up a villain to commit a crime in order to trap him, you can only prosecute him for the current crime, and there will still be no evidence to charge him on the past ones, is that right?

    Like for example, in the movie The Departed...

    SPOILER

    Costello and his gang are busted in a sting operation at the end, when the police catch him in the act of a drug meet, and stop it. However, it seems that the only thing they can charge the gang with is attempting to deal drugs, since they stopped them in the process.

    All of those murders, that Costello's gang committed before, including that of the police captain, who the cops were so anxious to get justice for. Yet in the end, they settle for drug transaction charges.

    So I feel that I want to make an ending like that work, but how do you have the reader be satisfied if the villain is going down for being caught for a lesser crime, where as still getting away with all the heinous crimes, he committed previously?

    Unless the law dictates that you can legally link the villain to his past crimes, based on the current one? I mean the term caught red handed, has some legal precedence to it, or does it really not?

    Thanks for the input. I really appreciate it.
     
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2016
  2. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    It depends on the situation exactly what would likely happen but there's a few ways this can go after the camera cuts:

    First; the present crime is substantial enough to put a person/group in jail for a long long time, potentially for life.

    In this case the cops don't care about getting them on anything else, the guys are going to jail forever and ever and thats good enough. Don't quote me but I believe that most high-end drug offenses have a '...to life' upper bound so just because someone isn't caught murdering someone doesn't mean they won't go away for a long long time. While some 'life' offenses can lead to people leaving jail in 10 or 12 years parole boards really don't look favorably on drug dealers.

    Second; holding a bunch of guys on very substantial charges gives you a very good chance to get one to turn on the group and give them concrete evidence of other, earlier crimes.

    This can (at least in fiction) be a major reason to run a sting operation to begin with. If you are investigating a gang and can't quite get the evidence to put them away for whatever they are up to you might arrange a sting to grab them all for something and use that leverage to bust your way into a wider enterprise. While some groups are reasonably resistant to this. In fiction the Italian mafia is normally written to be (getting all Omerta up in here) but in practice it's actually much more strictly regimented groups like the Russian Mafia who really won't give up their comrades. More fluid groups like street gangs (of any flavor) have been extremely vulnerable to this kind of attack in the past.

    Third; the cops are using RICO or another organised crime statute. This is how the cops might link a number of crimes together.

    RICO is a really complex law but in principle (my understanding, you should research) you only need to prove a definable group of people have committed at least one crime as a group in the past and one crime as a group in the present. So your sting is your present crime. You already have evidence of an earlier crime within the RICO statute (this is both weirdly broad and annoyingly narrow - you need evidence of them acting as a group, so one guy slinging crack won't do it but I believe if you can show a bunch of guys handling stolen goods together then that'll count; again you'll have to look it up). If you are setting someone up for a RICO prosecution you want an absolute slam dunk for at least one of the crimes falling under it and a sting is a superb idea for that. The results of RICO can be far reaching and frankly extreme. While the people themselves can't be give (again IIRC) sentences much longer than sentences than they would otherwise have gotten for their actions RICO allows the state to go after the proceeds of their enterprise, so they can take houses, cars, jewelry, anything that anyone in the criminal conspiracy can't prove they bought with legitimate income. This is part of the reason why the modern mob (see The Sopranos) is really really careful about having a legitimate income (so Tony works for a sanitation consulting firm) which will ensure that a RICO prosecution wouldn't be able to attack their homes or families.

    There could be several of these happening together. You might be happy just to put people away then find a guy who wants to talk. He might then give you the evidence to use RICO. All of these things can come together. Or fall apart, of course. You might go after a group with RICO, then find your old crime is shaky, then try to flip someone, then have to just settle with the crime you have.
     
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  3. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. But I don't think RICO would work in this case, since my villains have already gotten a rid of all the evidence that connects them all to their past crimes in the story. At least I cannot think of a reason why they wouldn't have, or why they would keep any evidence.

    As for the current crime they are being stung for by the police, the current crime is being in possession of blackmail material that they were blackmailing one of their alleged members, who was murdered. But just because they have blackmail material, does not necessarily mean they are the same ones who murdered the man, especially if their is no physical evidence to tie them to it.

    I cannot have physical evidence tie them to it, otherwise they would be arrested much earlier in the story, and it would be over too soon. But at the same time, I cannot think of anything else to catch them on, besides that, since their crime is over at this point, and they do not have any other to commit.

    I am setting the story in Canada, where I live, and there, the penalty for blackmail is only a few years.
     
  4. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    There's two potential ways you can go -

    First - Conspiracy.

    Blackmail, as you say, is not a serious crime. Conspiracy to commit murder on the other hand, that's a big deal. If they guy ends up dead (ie the conspiracy was successful) then every member of the conspiracy can be charged with conspiracy to commit, which in law is punishable the same as the primary act. If you were to hire a hit man then you'd get charged with conspiracy to commit murder and that'll get you a life sentence (although I'm reasonably sure not a death sentence in the US). So perhaps the blackmail stuff is the missing link the cops need to build up a broader picture of the murder. Especially if they were already suspicious of this group having a concrete motive might crack the case wide open.

    Second - Felony Murder (which in this case means 'A murder while performing a felony' not 'a murder that is a felony.)

    Alongside conspiracy there is a third way you can get charged for a murder you didn't actually personally commit (the first one being straight murder by the way; if you were acting as part of a group the whole group gets charged with the crime even if someone else pulled the trigger). Felony murder means you (or an accomplice) killed someone in the commission of another crime. Felony murder means that, in essence, you can't claim self defense if you were committing a crime, nor can you really be charged with manslaughter or negligent homicide or even really reckless endangerment if someone died. If you were committing (or intending to commit) a crime then any death can be laid at your door. I believe people have even been charged with felony murder when someone had a heart attack. You don't have to kill them, you don't even have to touch them, simply that they died while you were committing a crime; the idea being you shouldn't have been there and whatever happened you are responsible for. If a security guard shoots at your buddy who is waiting in the car while you are five floors up breaking into the safe, if he shoots the guard even to protect his own life your buddy will get murder, and you will get felony murder.

    So how does this relate to you?

    Well, if your gang were blackmailing someone and through the commission of that blackmail they killed him then they might all be on the hook for Felony Murder. They were committing a crime, they had no business being wherever they were (say to take money off the guy) and when he died, even if he fell out a window or had an unexpected stroke, they could reasonably all be charged with his death under certain circumstances. So perhaps your cops, being clever people, might ask the gang a carefully constructed set of questions that doesn't seem to be incriminating any of them for anything more than the blackmail but in fact puts the whole of them on the hook for his death in the commission of a crime.

    Felony murder is a really weird thing for lots of reasons and you definitely should look it up and find the relevent statutes. It's not a commonly used law because the circumstances for it are kind of contrived but, well, it's out there. I don't know exactly what it's called in Canada (the term Constructive Homicide comes to mind but don't quote me) but it may well just be in your regular murder statute but it's a common law principal that exists in most developed countries in some form. Even an accident in the commission of a crime is murder because of the circumstances.
     
  5. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Yep in Canada it's called constructive murder as far as I know.

    What I mean is, though, is that in court, the prosecutor could tell the jury, that the defendants were in position of material, they were using to blackmail the dead victim. But the defense lawyer can argue that just because they were blackmailing the victim, doesn't mean they killed him, and it seems that they would likely get off, based on that argument alone. I mean it's possible that someone else killed him, even though they were the ones blackmailing. It's unlikely, but still possible enough to a jury to raise reasonable doubt, right?

    I am not planning on showing the actual trial, after, but the reader can assume that they would get off, based on this argument, no?
     

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