The `Gotcha!' Game: Finicky Cases of Law Enforcement

Article excerpt

ONE of the strangest games of the '90s will never show up on the shelves of Toys * Us. Played by zealous adults, the game, which could be called "Gotcha!," requires no fixed rules. Its only goal is to catch unsuspecting people in largely innocent acts, then declare them guilty of a crime.

The latest round of "Gotcha!" took place in New York last week. Four businessmen, commuting home to Westchester County, settled into their seats on the Metro-North train for a routine activity - their daily poker game. Before the train ever left the station, two police officers appeared, looking for illegal smokers. But after spotting a deck of cards and $141 in cash, they arrested the foursome for gambling. Handcuffed and humiliated, the commuters were led through the terminal, placed in holding cells, and fingerprinted and photographed.

Gotcha!

Never mind that one of the men, a lawyer, had been playing poker on the train for 28 years. And never mind that the railroad itself runs radio commercials saying, "You can have card games on the train." In a society where lotteries and state-sanctioned gambling exist almost everywhere, the only mistake, apparently, is to play cards with friends rather than the state.

The police officers probably thought they were just doing their job. Yet considering the crimes that occur in New York railroad stations - robberies, rapes, even murders - other passengers could be forgiven for wondering: Is arresting smokers and card players the best use of limited police resources?

The incident recalls another interrupted card game more than a decade ago in Largo, Fla. Eight retired men, playing nickel-and-dime poker one afternoon in their mobile home park, were arrested for violating the state's gambling law. Their trial took two days. Although the judge could have sentenced them to six months in jail and fined them $500, he put the men, quickly dubbed the "Largo Eight," on one month probation and ordered them to pay $75 each in court costs. …

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