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The acquittal of automaker John De Lorean sends a message to US law enforcement agencies: Americans are increasingly uneasy about the ethics of entrapment.

To the courts, entrapment - the luring of people into the commission of a crime - has a very precise definition and is illegal. Several congressional defendants in the Abscam case vainly argued in their defense that they had been entrapped by the FBI, one contention of the De Lorean defense as well.

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But to the public, entrapment has a more general meaning: law enforcement efforts to lead prominent people into illegal situations, then charge them with crimes. The public doesn't like it, and shouldn't.

It is one thing when police set up a bogus fencing operation to attract house burglars into selling their stolen goods. Catching people like burglars who have already engaged in criminal activity is certainly permissible.

But it is quite another situation when a law enforcement agency entices a vulnerable, well-known person into a situation in which he ultimately incriminates himself - and then hauls him into court charged with a crime.

The case was notable for more than the entrapment issue. It was a long media circus, occupying much public attention for a year. In retrospect it was a public spectacle that served no positive purpose.

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