Earlier this month, police left a wallet in an unattended shopping cart at a Target in Brooklyn and arrested people who picked it up, according to a worker at the store. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her employment, said that on December 8th she "noticed two guys standing there not purchasing anything." The men, who she deduced were undercover cops, were standing at the top of the escalators looking down, "to watch where the cart is at."
The worker did not directly witness the arrests, but when she learned that people were arrested in connection with the arrangement she'd seen, she said she felt she had to speak out.
"I feel like that was just like a setup, especially around the holiday time," she said. "Not that everybody is looking to rob or steal, but I don't know too many people who would walk past a wallet with money sticking out and return it. If something is abandoned and there's no one in sight and everybody's just walking past it, you're asking someone to commit a crime...I just feel like it was targeting needy people—or even wealthy people."
The NYPD confirmed that officers made two arrests for petit larceny at Atlantic Terminal Mall that day, but did not respond for requests for further information. One of the women arrested, 51, could not be reached. The other, 37, did not respond to Facebook messages seeking comment.
A Brooklyn District Attorney's Office spokeswoman said that both women were released with desk appearance tickets, and the office did not have further information.
The wallet operation, as described by the employee, seems to be a revival of a controversial program called Operation Lucky Bag. The department started out in 2006 by leaving shopping bags, purses, and backpacks around the subway system, then arresting people who took the items and walked past a uniformed cop without reporting the find. Judges and prosecutors effectively stopped the program within a year, with some saying that it created criminals out of everyday New Yorkers, and distracted from efforts to fight actual crime.
Later in 2007, though, the police department resurrected and expanded the program, taking it to parks, sidewalks, and stores, and upping the stakes by placing credit cards in the bags, supposedly making picking them up grand larceny—a felony. By November 2007, according to a New York Times report, police had ensnared 220 people this way.
The NYPD continued the program into this decade, mixing it up further by placing valuable electronics in some of the bags. Between March and June of 2011, police arrested 34 people in connection with the stings in Central Park alone. Around this time, people began to sue, saying they were good Samaritans cuffed before they had a chance to try to turn in the property. One suit, by a tourist from Atlanta arrested for taking $27 out of a purse in Central Park, was settled out of court.
Another lawsuit, a class action, resulted in the city paying $50,000 to settle with three plaintiffs, and the NYPD agreeing to severely restrict the circumstances under which police can make these kinds of arrests. Prior to the 2014 settlement, it's not clear that the law was on the side of the police. As lawyers for the wrongfully arrested argued in their filings, state law governing personal property gives a window of 10 days for people who find items worth more than $20 to turn them into the police. And penal law defining larceny says that people who find lost property should take "reasonable measures to return such property to the owner," but makes no mention of involving police in the search.
Apart from the credit card arrests, busts that have been publicized in the past revolved around bags and wallets without identifying information in them.
— kei will (@BlackBoiKei) September 15, 2016
Under the terms of the class action settlement, the NYPD agreed to make Lucky Bag arrests only when a) only the valuables were taken, i.e. the cash removed from a wallet, b) the taking involved removing one piece of property from another, i.e. a bag from a stroller, or c) upon being approached by a cop, the taker denies having taken the property. The settlement also required the NYPD Legal Bureau to sign off on all Lucky Bag stings, and that the NYPD report its Lucky Bag activity to the plaintiffs’ lawyers for two years under strict confidentiality.
Norman Siegel, former New York Civil Liberties Union director and one of the lawyers who brought the suit, said that the key to determining whether the most recent arrests were proper are in the specifics, which the worker did not have.
"The key there would be whether or not they [the people arrested] had the money," he said, "whether they didn't pick up the [wallet], or they had everything that was there."
Siegel said that if someone picks up a whole bag, so long as she didn't separate it from another piece of property and she maintains that she was intending to turn it in to police, she has a defense. He said that people shouldn't feel discouraged from trying to do the right thing.
"If I see a bag on the street and I think I can return the bag, open it up inside and figure out who owns it," he said. "We want people to continue to be good Samaritans, and know what their rights are.
Still, logical as it may seem to some, picking up abandoned valuables with no clear owner is harder to defend. Siegel explained, "If you just pick up the $20 bill and leave everything else, you're not the good Samaritan anymore."
Reached by phone, a manager at the Atlantic Avenue store said, "I can't answer any of those questions," and referred us to Target's corporate office [see their response below]. Neither did the Community Affairs office for the NYPD's 78th Precinct, which serves an area including Atlantic Terminal.
Petit larceny arrests are up slightly in the precinct, according to NYPD statistics, with 1,170 reported so far this year compared to 1,024 at the same time in 2015.
Siegel encouraged people who feel they have been unfairly targeted by Operation Lucky Bag to reach out to his law firm. Similarly, if you would like to share your experience with Gothamist, you can email email@example.com.
Disclosure: Norman Siegel represented Gothamist in its successful effort to get NYPD media credentials. Also, the author found $15 on the floor of a deli today and did not give it to the nearest police officer.
Update 3:45 p.m.:
Target spokeswoman Erika Winkels sent this statement, which does not specifically respond to the scenario described in this story:
Target is committed to providing a secure environment for our guests and team members. As a part of that commitment, we take a multi-layered, comprehensive approach to preventing theft and fraud that includes innovative programs and partnerships with local law enforcement, technology and team member training.
We typically don’t disclose details of our security practices. Additional questions are best directed to law enforcement.
Update December 21st:
An item in this week's Brooklyn Paper blotter about a Lucky Bag sting at a "big-box retailer" on Flatbush Avenue near Atlantic Avenue seems to confirm the account of the Target worker. It describes a December 8th sting in which police arrested a woman for going through a planted "bag" and pocketing $43.