Entrapment and Retributive Theory

In Mark White (ed.), Retributivism: Essays on Theory and Policy. Oxford University Press (2011)
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I address the question, ‘Should a retributivist support an entrapment defense and if so, under what circumstances?’, by considering the culpability of entrapped defendants. An entrapment defense is invoked by defendants who claim they violated the law because they were enticed to crime by the police and would not otherwise have committed the crime. There are different rationales for the defense: people who are normally law abiding, and who are not predisposed to commit crimes, do not commit crimes merely when the opportunity is presented, without further coaxing—only criminals do—and so spending resources to entice and then punish such “false criminals” is wasteful from a utilitarian perspective. Several theorists assume retributivists must oppose the defense: entrapped defendants have broken the law and, according to one version of retributivism (Mabbott), this itself might warrant punishment; they are still culpable although they were enticed, because succumbing to temptation is no defense—there is no ‘private entrapment defense’; and to not punish the non-predisposed who are enticed to crime by government, while punishing those who are predisposed, is wrongly to assert that a person’s culpability hinges on their predisposition and wrongly to punish someone not for their present conduct but for their character or past actions. I explore some reasons why a retributivist can support an entrapment defense. First, entrapped defendants may be less culpable than the privately enticed insofar as they do not cause harm. As police control the situation, no actual harm is caused, and whether one actually causes harm may bear on one’s culpability; and if one’s predisposition was weak and required substantial police coaxing to be triggered, we might say that the police action and not the defendant caused the crime in the relevant sense. Second, applying Robert Nozick’s account of coercion in a novel way, I consider the argument that entrapped defendants may be less culpable insofar as their action was not fully voluntary, in that unlike in private enticement cases, they necessarily underestimate the probability of being caught before making their choice.

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Mark Tunick
Florida Atlantic University


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