Washington, July 21, 2014 – An investigation by USA Today has sparked fresh debate on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) use of drug sting operations. The report once again calls into question the tactics of government informants encouraging suspected criminals to commit crimes, and whether or not these operations unfairly target minority communities.
USA Today analyzed court files and prison records from the last decade and found that the ATF’s use of drug stings has quadrupled. Under federal mandatory minimum sentence laws for drug crimes, the stings produce prison sentences of at least a decade. In many cases the drugs in question do not even exist. ATF officials use informants to seek out potential criminals and invite them to take part in a robbery of a suspected drug stash house. As with the drugs, the stash houses are non-existent.
Records reviewed by USA Today show that 91% of people locked up under these stings were racial or ethnic minorities. The large majority were black or Hispanic. Melvin King, ATF’s deputy assistant director for field operations, denies the agency is profiling individuals. He says they target “the worst of the worst”, specifically looking for violent criminals using firearms to conduct illegal activities.
Despite these assurances, lawyers in three states are reportedly working to force the Department of Justice to release its records on how they conduct the stings and how they choose suspects. In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo ordered the government to produce information related to the stings. The Justice Department continues to fight the order.
A federal appeals court in Chicago said the operations “seems to be directed at unsophisticated, and perhaps desperate, defendants who easily snap at the bait.” In California, a federal judge said the ATF agents were “trolling poor neighborhoods” and dismissed charges against three men. Even still, judges have been reluctant to call the operations entrapment.
In their 2013 report on the topic, USA TODAY found 22 people acquitted by juries, out of 512 cases. The jurors in the acquittals believed the suspects had been entrapped or were unconvinced they played a significant role in hatching the robbery. There are at least 89 prosecutions pending in federal court.
To argue entrapment a defendant must prove the government pressured them to commit a crime. The government can not pressure innocent people to commit crimes but it has become commonplace to use informants to find individuals with criminal records and provided incentive for them to commit new crimes. The tactics the ATF informants use have come under fire as well. ATF informants report attempting to involve people in stash house robberies after meeting them one time at a gas station or a park. In one court case an informant was questioned about the neighborhoods he used to recruit suspects. The informant seemed unaware of wealthier communities, only listing low-income, minority neighborhoods as his target. Until the ATF releases its records on how the informants operate, the public will remain in the dark.
In another article I will explore this and other questionable actions by the ATF. It will be the latest in my “The Crimes of…” series, which explores the tactics of various government agencies and corporations. Previous articles examined The Crimes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Canadian Mining company Goldcorp, and European bank HSBC.