US judge: Fake ATF stings should become a relic of the past

FILE - In this Nov. 25, 2013 file photo, Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo speaks from the bench in Chicago. Castillo is slated to issue a firs

CHICAGO (AP) — A judge on Monday urged federal law enforcement across the country to stop conducting stings in which undercover agents talk suspects into agreeing to steal non-existent drugs from non-existent stash houses, saying they overwhelmingly target blacks, are deeply flawed and should become a relic of the past.

Reading from his 73-page written ruling during a Chicago hearing, Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo questioned the overall fairness of the phony stash-house stings, which involve U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents posing as disgruntled Mexican cartel couriers who dangle the prospect of lucrative payouts to the would-be thieves.

"It's time for these false stash-house cases to end and be relegated to the dark corridors of the past," Castillo said. "Our criminal justice system should not tolerate false stash-house cases anymore."

He cited "inherent problems" in how the operations are run and said the stings "must be seen through the lens of our country's sad history of racism."

Nearly 80 percent of all defendants charged in phony stash-house sting cases in northern Illinois between 2006 and 2013 were black, while blacks made up just 18 percent of the adult population in the region, Castillo said, adding that "these numbers generate great disrespect for law enforcement efforts."

Despite imploring agencies to abandon their use, Castillo stopped short of ruling the stings met the legal definition of being racially biased, saying he was bound to come to that conclusion by legal precedent with which he did not agree. As a result, he said he "reluctantly" denied defense motions to dismiss charges against the mainly black suspects.

Castillo, the Chicago federal court's first Hispanic chief judge, started Monday's hearing by pointing out that what he was about to say was historically important and acknowledging its potential impact beyond Illinois. In a dramatic move, he ordered a court official to lock the courtroom doors so journalists wouldn't disrupt the hearing by rushing out to file their stories.

The judge drew from history to buttress his point that the ATF stings foster resentment in minority communities. In the days of Prohibition-era Chicago gangster Al Capone, he said, Eliot Ness and other federal agents didn't stoop to using "false alcohol-warehouse" stings but relied on "solid investigative" techniques instead.

"This type of work inspires great public cooperation ... unlike the false stash-house cases before this court," he said.

Castillo's findings were preceded by five years of filings on the race question, evidentiary hearings and dueling expert reports. Other federal courts have grappled with the same question, but none as thoroughly as the federal court in Chicago.

Castillo and eight other judges held rare joint hearings in December to examine statistics-based evidence on the issue. Combined, they preside over a dozen different criminal cases involving more than 40 suspects arrested in stash-house stings. Castillo was the first to rule, though the other judges could issue their own decisions later. After the December hearings, defense lawyers also announced they were seeking plea deals to avoid trials.

The first such ATF stings were in Miami in the early 1990s and were designed to deal with the new phenomenon of heavily armed gangs specialized in storming real stash houses, some of which held millions of dollars in cash. The first ATF stash-house operations in Chicago were conducted in 2006.

Defense attorneys argue that the stings now tend to create crimes that entangle low-level, inept but cash-strapped individuals. In one of the Chicago cases, suspects managed to bring only a broken World War I-era pistol for the raid of what they believed would be a well-guarded stash house.

Another defendant, Leslie Mayfield, was working at an electronics company and struggling financially when an informant cooperating with agents lured him into one of the ATF stings. The informant told him he could net him $40,000 and two kilograms of cocaine, Mayfield wrote in a letter to his judge.

"Every day at work he began to make comments such as, 'Cuz, I know you tired of working for this chump change ... I know you need this money,'" Mayfield wrote, saying he ultimately couldn't resist the temptation of quick money.

Among the most criticized aspects of the phony stings is that agents can arbitrarily increase the severity of charges simply by increasing the amount of drugs they tell a suspect is in the stash houses. Suspects often are charged with trying to sell and distribute the drugs, even though the drugs never existed.

The U.S. attorney's office in Chicago quietly began dropping the most controversial drug charges against the stash-house defendants three years ago. Weapons charges and others that can also carry stiff prison sentences remain.

The answer to whether the stings are racially biased hinges in large part on competing interpretations of statistics.

Jeffrey Fagan, a defense expert, testified in December that out of 94 stash-house defendants in the Chicago area between 2006 and 2013, 74 were black, 12 were Hispanic and eight were white. If the ATF criteria for picking targets were truly colorblind, he said, far more whites would have been snared.

But Castillo said some of Fagan's calculations were erroneous, rendering statistics meant to demonstrate racial bias less persuasive. That included the defense expert's assumption that ATF agents recruited the 94 stash-house suspects when, in fact, suspects themselves recruited other crew members on their own initiative, Castillo said.

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