NYPD's Stolen-iPhone Sting Operation Questioned

Beware of cops selling stolen Apple products.
Beware of cops selling stolen Apple products.

Two weeks ago the NYPD announced that it had arrested 141 people in a city-wide sting operation directed against criminals selling stolen iPhones and iPads.

Called "Operation Takeback," the sweep put undercover cops, pretending to sell cut-rate Apple gadgets, in stores and on street corners where they suspected stolen goods were bought and sold.

"This was a two-pronged approach to apprehend both thieves and receivers of stolen property," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. "Suspects at both ends of the equation are learning the hard way that 'victims' and 'sellers' may in fact be undercover police officers."

But one family caught up in the arrests say the numbers Kelly trumpeted obscure police misconduct and entrapment.

Robert Tester, a 19-year-old freshman at Manhattan Borough Community College, was on his way home from a day studying for finals at the McKinley Park library in Dyker Heights December 14th when he was approached on the sidewalk by a man offering to sell in iPhone.

"He told Robert a story that he'd lost his job and he needed to help his daughter because he didn't have any money for food," Tester's father told the Voice today. "He told my son he'd purchased his phone at the Apple store and was selling it because he needed $50."

Tester didn't have $50, and says he tried to walk on, but the man stopped him again, and pleaded "Make me an offer." Tester gave him $20, and was promptly arrested and charged with attempted criminal possession of stolen property.

Tester says he was never told that what he was being offered was stolen. And though he was let off with barely a slap on the wrist -- his case will be dropped unless he's arrested again in the next six months -- he's fighting back, and plans to sue the New York Police Department.

"I don't think they had probable cause to make an arrest in the first place," says Matthew Galluzzo, the lawyer representing Tester in his pending suit. "But even if they had told him it was stolen, you're talking about entrapment."

In the meantime, Tester is taking his case public, talking to the Voice, the Brooklyn Paper, and Channel 4. He's also enlisted the support of his City Council Member, Vincent Gentile.

"Trying to root out merchants who are known dealers in stolen electronics is one matter," Gentile wrote in a letter to Ray Kelly. "Luring unsuspecting and otherwise law-abiding teenagers to 'buy' goods from undercover officers is another matter entirely."

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says this months arrests are reminiscent of "Operation Lucky Bag," an NYPD program that leaves attractive packages unattended and arrested those who picked them up. That program has been criticized for criminalizing Good Samaritans, and "Operation Takeback" is no different, Lieberman says.

"Whenever the police department packages a program as going after hardened criminals it's very appealing," says Lieberman. "But when we find out that police are reeling in individuals who would not otherwise be likely to engage in criminal behavior, it raises serious concerns."

Whether Tester's case is representative of the Operation's other 140 arrests is unclear. The Voice has asked the NYPD for details of the other arrests, and we'll update when we hear back from them.

[] [@macfathom]

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