The ATF’s sting operations have already drawn plenty of criticism. Not from law enforcement agencies who partner up with the ATF for easy busts or the DOJ which oversees them, but from almost everyone else, including federal judges. These stings result in government-made criminals who are led by undercover agents towards robbing fake stash houses of nonexistent drugs, cash, and weapons. The fun thing about the nonexistent drugs is it can be whatever amount ATF agents say it is. And that amount of drugs — that exists nowhere but in the imagination of federal agents — is used to determine lengths of sentences.
Judge Gerald McHugh trimmed back a sentence given a defendant caught in an ATF stash house sting, pointing out the crooked system allows prosecutors to play judge, jury and executioner — all before the case even lands in court. As the judge notes, he has never run into a sting prosecution where the imaginary drug stash was below the statutory guideline triggering the longest sentences.
From my review of reported cases nationwide, I have not identified any investigation where the specified amount of cocaine in the fictional stash house was less than 5 kilograms. By statute, 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), 5 kilograms is the amount that triggers exposure to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Judge Otis Wright was even less kind, pointing out the government’s standard operating procedure of goading desperate people into committing fake crimes that result in lengthy sentences. The feds then dangle plea bargains above their heads, hoping defendants will take the less onerous offer and skip the courtroom proceedings where the details of the stash house sting might be examined by skeptical judges and juries.
The end result of these stings? Nothing but people being locked up.
Zero. That’s the amount of drugs that the Government has taken off the streets as the result of this case and the hundreds of other fake stash-house cases around the country. That’s the problem with creating crime: the Government is not making the country any safer or reducing the actual flow of drugs. But for the Government’s action, the fake stash house would still be fake, the nonexistent drugs would still be nonexistent, and the fictional armed guards would still be fictional…. Instead, the Government comes close to imprisoning people solely because of their thoughts and economic circumstances rather than their criminal actions.
The other ugly truth about these sting operations is their consistent targeting of minorities.
A recently unsealed study by a nationally renowned expert concluded that ATF showed a clear pattern of racial bias in picking its targets for the drug stings. The disparity between minority and white defendants was so large that there was "a zero percent likelihood" it happened by chance, the study found.
The vast majority of those swept up in the stings in Chicago were minorities, and a close examination of the criminal backgrounds of some of those targeted raises questions about whether they were truly the most dangerous gun offenders whom ATF was aiming to remove from the street.
The ATF should be in the business of removing dangerous individuals from circulation. Instead, it preys on the less fortunate. Much like the FBI’s continued material support of handcrafted terrorists, the ATF frequently has to provide the means, motive, plan, and pretty much everything else that might be required to rob a stash house.
Some had trouble even coming up with guns to do the job — including one crew that after months of preparation managed to find only one World War I-era pistol with a broken handle that could barely fire a round. Others had no history of carrying out high-risk armed robberies — a key provision in the ATF playbook designed to make sure targets were legitimate, defense lawyers argued in recent court filings.
Drugs aren’t being taken off the streets. The only weapons being seized are the ATF’s. And plenty of truly dangerous people are still walking around while the ATF pushes minorities with money problems into plans composed of pure bullshit.
This poses more problems for the DOJ. It will at least have to defend itself against some new lawsuits in the future. Trump’s DOJ may be less concerned about civil liberties violations than his predecessor, but his DOJ still has to answer for past violations.
This new report echoes Brad Heath’s 2014 research into stash house stings.
At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings were racial or ethnic minorities, USA TODAY found after reviewing court files and prison records from across the United States. Nearly all were either black or Hispanic. That rate is far higher than among people arrested for big-city violent crimes, or for other federal robbery, drug and gun offenses.
The ATF operations raise particular concerns because they seek to enlist suspected criminals in new crimes rather than merely solving old ones, giving agents and their underworld informants unusually wide latitude to select who will be targeted. In some cases, informants said they identified targets for the stings after simply meeting them on the street.
The sad fact is it takes the private sector to put this damning information together. The ATF likes its easy busts and it likely knows its practices reek of racial bias. That’s the only reasonable explanation for its deliberate avoidance of any sort of record keeping.
The ATF said it could not confirm those figures because the agency does not track the demographics of the people it arrests in stash-house cases.
Despite its lack of tracking, the ATF insists it’s not participating in discriminatory behavior. It has nothing to offer in its defense, but it continues to insist it’s doing the Lord’s work with its stash house stings.
Current and former ATF officials insist that race plays no part in the operations. Instead, they said, agents seek to identify people already committing violent robberies in crime-ridden areas, usually focusing on those who have amassed long and violent rap sheets.
"There is no profiling going on here," said Melvin King, ATF’s deputy assistant director for field operations, who has supervised some of the investigations. "We’re targeting the worst of the worst, and we’re looking for violent criminals that are using firearms in furtherance of other illegal activities."
The research available directly contradicts these statements. It’s not just independent researchers who have noticed the profiling and the general uselessness of the sting operations. As was noted above, federal judges have arrived at the same conclusions. And federal judges have access to documents the DOJ refuses to release to FOIA requesters as well as the contents of cases still under seal.
More information continues to be pried from the DOJ’s grip, thanks to discovery requests in stash house prosecutions. Everything that’s been uncovered points to the conclusions drawn two years ago by USA Today and Brad Heath. The federal government is engaged in seriously troubling behavior, targeting poor minorities and fitting them for decades of imprisonment. And it can’t even argue the end justifies the means. The drugs and weapons being "robbed" are imaginary. A stash house sting removes no drugs, no guns, and very few dangerous criminals from the streets. The ends are an illusion, meaning nothing about the means is truly justified.