MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Suppose you visited New York City this holiday season - you took the subway, and suddenly you saw a wallet lying on a bench. What would you do? Would you take it and try to find the owner? Well, over the last couple of years, some people who have done just that have found themselves under arrest.

The New York City police department has planted those items to snare thieves. They say that subway crime is down as a result, and that they've caught many people with prior records. But civil libertarians and others say Operation Lucky Bag, as it's called, targets good Samaritans as much as thieves.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: When Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Brown describes the program, it's simple. An undercover officer leaves a bag or a wallet on a bench, gets up for a moment to buy a newspaper or walk to the edge of the platform to see if a train is coming, and people will either tell the officer, you forgot something, or turn in the property to the police, or they don't.

Mr. PAUL BROWN (Deputy police commissioner): People take the property, will take an iPod out of the bag, or they'll take a cell phone out of the bag, or they'll take the money out of the wallet, or they'll take the whole wallet, or they'll go up to the undercover officer and say, hey, your wallet just fell out of your pocket. You shouldn't leave your property here.

ADLER: But often, that's not how things work in real life. Take Aquarius Cheers, a cook and culinary student, and his wife, Kia Graves, a business development assistant at a TV station. Earlier this year, they say they were on their way to buy some diapers at Target.

Mr. AQUARIUS CHEERS (Cook and culinary student): There was a bag, and it was on the platform, in a bench on a platform.

Ms. KIA GRAVES (Business development assistant): It's like a shopping bag with a cell phone…

Mr. CHEERS: Like a Nintendo toy and a phone or something like that or a camera. Train came and then we rushed in to get on the train, and then there were close to about, like, five or six police.

Ms. GRAVES: Yeah. I told him to grab the bag and let's go. And it was no big deal. I've done this before. I take it - picked up a wallet and then called the person up and mailed it back to them. And then all of a sudden, because Aquarius picked up the bag - but I told him to pick it up - he's the one who got arrested in front of our 18-month-old at the time, put in handcuffs and…

Mr. CHEERS: Charged with petty larceny.

ADLER: Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union says that what Cheers and Graves did was totally rational.

Ms. DONNA LIEBERMAN (Executive Director, New York Civil Liberties Union): It's not a crime to pick up a wallet that's lying on the train. If you take the wallet and put it in your pocket, that's entirely consistent with going to the office and looking through the stuff to find some ID to call and try to locate the owner.

ADLER: In fact, by law, you have 10 days to return stolen property. And you don't have to return it to the police. The program Operation Lucky Bag began almost two years ago. Brown says in the last year, police arrested a little over 100 people, about half had prior arrest records. And he says many of those with prior records had several prior arrests.

Mr. BROWN: If they don't have a prior record and they don't do another overt act other than take it, we typically cut them loose.

Ms. LIEBERMAN: You can't presume criminal intent based on a person having a record. That is illegal.

ADLER: Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union calls it worst than entrapment.

Ms. LIEBERMAN: Entrapment is setting people up to engage in criminal activity to which they would not otherwise be disposed. This is setting people up to be good Samaritans and then treating them like a criminal.

Mr. BROWN: It's ridiculous. The good Samaritans don't get arrested.

ADLER: But some people, like Aquarius Cheers, clearly did, although the charges were finally dropped. Deputy Commissioner Paul Brown says subway crime is down 13 percent as a result of Operation Lucky Bag. But a number of judges have balked at finding people guilty, and the program has been opposed by groups like 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement. Still, the New York City Police Department believes it mostly catches real thieves, and that the good Samaritans that get caught in the web are few. But there may be more good Samaritans out there than the police think, and many return things without going to the police.

Last spring, students at Barnard College drop 132 wallets containing a little bit of money and a subway fare card all over New York City to see what would happen. Only two of the wallets were stolen. Some were taken to the wrong place, but more than 80 percent were successfully returned.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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