Emergency exit stings: entrapment or enforcement?

By · Published in 2011

An emergency exit stands alone amidst construction in 2007. (Photo by flickr user rlboston)

Usually, when we talk about the great emergency exit debate, we do so in the context of exiting a station. Should those who think they are in more of a hurry than others risk the ear-piercing sounds of the alarm to power through the emergency exit? Should others follow once the exits are opened by someone else? The moralists and pragmatists have squared off before, and today, the alarms are largely ineffective.

But what of people who use the emergency exits to sneak into the subway system without paying? Those are the folks we never mention because it’s clear they are violating the law. By skirting the turnstiles and the need for a swipe, they can enter without a fare. In this week’s column, though, Pete Donohue highlights the hazy ethics surrounding some recent police stings. Is it entrapment or ethics, he asks:

Carlos, a hair stylist from Long Island, says he’s never been in real trouble. Never arrested. Never even got a speeding ticket. But there he was, surrounded by four uniformed police officers in a midtown station one morning last week. He stole a sheepish glance at the cops and the commuters rushing by, then settled his gaze on the tiled floor.,,

Minutes before, as he hurriedly approached a bank of turnstiles below 33rd St. and Seventh Ave., Carlos saw that the emergency exit gate was wide open. He made an instant decision not to break stride. He ducked through the opening. ..Little did he know that a police officer was peeking around a nearby pillar like a schoolboy playing spy, eying the emergency exit gate that exiting riders constantly swing wide open. Carlos didn’t get more than 15 feet past the gate when the young officer stepped out from his hiding spot…Carlos was issued a fare-beating ticket. The fine is $100.

The hairdresser was caught in a cynical trap that is wrong on far more levels than it is right. It’s a cheap version of the “broken windows” theory of policing that was born in the urban lawlessness of the 1980s and embraced by former Police Commissioner William Bratton in the early 1990s. Police have partly credited the sharp decline in subway felonies to their cracking down on relatively minor offenses like turnstile jumping. In the process, they wound up nabbing plenty of bad guys who had weapons or were wanted for serious crimes.

Turnstile jumping is one thing. But the swing-gate sting pushes the bounds of fairness. It’s entrapment, inducing people who wouldn’t dare jump a turnstile to enter without swiping a MetroCard – including some who have valid cards in their wallet. It’s trickery that engenders bad feelings toward cops whose supervisors don’t allow them to use a modicum of judgment.

Donohue’s article ends with the story of another person who entered through an open emergency exit and right into the arms of the cops even though she had an unlimited ride card. “I didn’t even think about it,” she said. “I assumed the turnstile was broken. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

To me, this is a pretty cut-and-dry issue. If you enter the system without swiping — unlimited ride card or not — you are violating the law, and the affirmative defense of entrapment doesn’t apply here. Cops aren’t actively encouraging or inducing anyone to break the law, and per New York State law, “conduct merely affording a person an opportunity to commit an offense does not constitute entrapment.” If the cops are leaving emergency exits open to test straphangers’ ethics, it might be a waste of time or resources, but it’s certainly not entrapment.

It is likely a better use of resources for cops to keep shadier elements out of the system. The man and woman in Donohue’s article made mistakes, brok the law and had to pay. It is a fate they could have avoided by doing what everyone else does and swiping in.

28 Responses to “Emergency exit stings: entrapment or enforcement?”

  1. Marc Shepherd says:

    Your post largely sidesteps the real question.

    This “sting” may not be considered entrapment in the eye of the law. But is it a wise use of police resources? The fact that they can do this legally does not mean that they should.

    • My post sidesteps that question because Donohue’s column does too, and I wanted to riff on that. It really depends on who else the cops nab, right? The two hard workers who made a bad decision make for nice copy, but if cops are nabbing folks sneaking into the system to do something less than kosher, the sting should stand. Right now, there’s no really enough info to assess.

  2. Eric says:

    I can’t believe there’s a debate about this. Enter the system through an emergency exit (without swiping first) and you’re breaking the law. It’s not like the police propped the exit open.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      The article suggests that the police DID deliberately prop open the door. Those doors aren’t normally open, unless someone has just gone through the other way. They’re spring loaded, and shut automatically. The situation described in the article is that the door was “wide open,” and a police officer was hiding out of sight, ready to nab anyone who used it.

      It’s not entrapment legally, but it is fairly apparent the cops manufactured the opportunity, to see who they could nab.

    • John says:

      Yeah, the police probably did prop the exit open, but it doesn’t matter. They still broke the law.

      • Marc Shepherd says:

        Right, but that is still evading the real question: is this a good use of our police dollars? Or would you rather have the police doing something more useful?

        I mean, jaywalking is against the law too, but if police were hanging out to catch jaywalkers, I might suggest their priorities were out of whack.

  3. John-2 says:

    It would be interesting to get the police stats on this, since much was made 15 years ago of how tighter enforcement on turnstile jumpers was resulting in arrests of people with other outstanding criminal warrants. Are they arresting any people who then turn up with more serious charges via the gate-running sting, or is this the equivalent of the old speed-trap village on the two-lane highway that’s nabbing people for doing 37 mph in a 35 zone just as a way to juice up the local fine revenues?

  4. Donald says:

    Whatever happened with that sting the NYPD used to do where they deliberately dropped wallets on the floor in the subway and arrested people if they picked it up without immediately looking for its owner? Do they still do that, or did a judge put an end to it?

  5. Lawrence Velázquez says:

    Are the police leaving the gates open themselves, or are they just watching after exiting commuters do so? That wasn’t clear to me from the article.

    • John says:

      Legally, it doesn’t matter. It’s not entrapment either way. It sounded to me like the police opened the gates themselves. But no matter why the gates were open, the still chose to go through them instead of the turnstiles.

  6. Tsuyoshi says:

    Donohue goes to a lot trouble to make it out like this behavior is no big deal, but I would never go through the emergency exit (either entering or exiting) without an actual emergency. To me it is just as repugnant as littering or jumping the turnstile.

    These minor crimes deserve to be punished, whether or not the perpretrators are engaging in more serious crime. If we were to decide that the police shouldn’t be enforcing a law, then the proper action is to repeal the law.

    I think if you are making an argument of cost – that the police don’t have the resources to care about these minor crimes – then you should raise the fines until the enforcement cost is covered.

  7. ferryboi says:

    Maybe the question should be asked “why are these emergency exits ONLY”? Seriously, why dedicate so much space just for emergency exits when they’ll hardly ever be used? Why not make them regular exit doors to handle the overflow when large crowds get off trains. They certainly can be used in an emergency, but shouldn’t be limited to JUST emergencies. As far as fare control, if anyone is caught going thru the doors without paying, fine them just as if they hopped the turnstile.

  8. IsaacB says:

    People entering the system via the exit door when not instructed by staff or signage should be subject to warnings or fines.

    People activating the exit alarm without instruction from staff or an emergency situation should be subject to warning or fine.

    People giving “exit swipes” should be warned or fined.

    In any situation where it can be reasonably inferred that a passenger acted in good faith, but violated rules by mistake, the authorities should defer to the passenger and at most, give a warning.

    • John says:

      Is giving away swipes illegal? I know selling them is, but if someone is in need and I hear a train approaching, I’ll swipe them in if I’m leaving the station. I know it takes away from fare revenue, but is it actually considered illegal?

  9. Al D says:

    Why would anybody enter through these gates? It is farebeating, plain and simple. Now, if an MTA employee or law enforcement official directed you through the gate, and you got a ticket anyway, now that’s an entirely different matter.

    This is just more of the ‘I’ culture at work.

    I am so self-important that I cannot slow down and use the turnstile. I have an Unlimited MetroCard, so I do not have to wait at the turnstile.

    That’s what Donohue should be writing about. Instead of trying to blame NYPD or MTA, these people should be blaming themselves for their stupidity as well should Donohue.

  10. Cyrus says:

    I would go thru the emergency exit. Saves me time swiping and i would assume the turnsicle is broken.

    • Jimmy says:

      That $2.25 is used for something. Something like the 2nd Av Subway, or track work. It’s not fair to the people who go through the turnstiles or the HEETs. Each time you beat the fare a little bit of the system deteriorates. Eventually what will happen? 70s and 80s.

  11. Scott E says:

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with what the cops are doing. The rule is that you swipe to enter. Leaving my front door open is not an invitation for strangers to walk in my house, and leaving a security gate open does not permit someone to walk through it.

    I will grant one exception to it though. If a person has a stroller or wheelchair, and the token clerk is distracted/oblivious/asleep, then I would think it’s acceptable for the person to roll through the open door.

  12. Noah says:

    I think there is something wrong if the cops are taking specific action to set up a honey pot, as the situation is motivating people to take actions that they might have otherwise not taken if the situation wasn’t seemingly so sweet, though I think it would be better for them to actually just take a stance of none interference and ticket those that they catch breaking the law. There is actually a whole tv show about cops doing this same thing with cars. I actually think that if you have an unlimited metro card they should actually let you off as there is no theft really occurring. Honestly I think this should be the same situation with SBS.

    The best solution really is to just implement the Kheel report and have all mass transit free.

    • Alon Levy says:

      I actually think that if you have an unlimited metro card they should actually let you off as there is no theft really occurring. Honestly I think this should be the same situation with SBS.

      You, and the best industry practice throughout Europe.

  13. Brian says:

    One problem Noah-
    How are we going to pay for to operate the system?

    • Scott E says:

      There have been theories (though I haven’t seen them backed by numbers) that if you were to remove all fare collection: vending machines, turnstiles, enforcement, communications infrastructure, credit-card processing fees, equipment maintenance, customer dispute resolutions, etc that the subways would be better off financially.

      In my mind, that would open the subways up even wider to be a haven for the homeless, though.

      • Noah says:

        Everyone should read this Streetsblog post and if you have the time the entire report, which is linked to in the streetsblog post.

        regarding the homeless in the subway, there is no simple answer, many people have literally no where to go, so aslong as there aren’t places for everyone to sleep safely and comfortably I feel uneasy taking anything close to a Giuliani approach to broken windows approach. Certainly we need to work on making better programs to ameliorate the situation that isn’t just one of moving the problem around.

  14. Anon says:

    big news in boston

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>