Crime & Courts

Entrapment defense has Carolina roots

Maybe we should call it “Carolina Hustle.”

Government stings, made famous recently in the movie “American Hustle,” also have a long and rowdy history in North Carolina.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court first recognized entrapment as a legitimate defense in a case involving a $5 jug of Tar Heel whiskey.

In 1930, a Prohibition agent named Martin got wind that a Haywood County factory worker named Sorrells was running liquor on the side.

The agent visited the home and had three of Sorrells’ friends introduce him as a furniture dealer from Charlotte who served in the same infantry division as Sorrells during World War I.

As the men chatted, Martin asked repeatedly for some whiskey to take back to Charlotte. Sorrells repeatedly declined. After one last request, Sorrells walked off and brought back a half-gallon jug, which he agreed to sell for $5. Instant arrest.

When Sorrells’ appeal of his conviction reached the Supreme Court, the outrage far exceeded the amount of whiskey involved. Chief Justice Charles Hughes called the arrest “a gross abuse of authority.”

Sorrells had displayed no disposition to break the law, the justices wrote, and had been victimized instead “by the trickery, persuasion or fraud of the officer.”

Claims of entrapment can still be heard in the North Carolina mountains. This time they come from dozens of bear hunters and guides, rounded up by state and federal investigators in “Operation Something Bruin,” billed by the government as a four-year undercover sting of poachers operating in two states.

Investigators say they infiltrated rings in Georgia and North Carolina and uncovered dozens of hunting and poaching violations concerning bears and other wildlife, leading to scores of arrests last year.

But during a public meeting in January, some of the targeted hunters and guides claimed undercover agents pestered them into taking them out to look for bears, then did most of the killing.

They also described armed tactical teams storming into homes to make arrests, seizing property and scaring children.