Appeals Court Sees Nothing Wrong With The ATF Busting People For Thinking About Robbing Fake Stash Houses

from the fake-criminals...-because-real-criminals-are-just-too-wily dept

The FBI continues to handcraft its own terrorists, ensuring a steady stream of prosecutions, press releases and counterterrorism funding. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and (more recently) Explosives (ATF) is busy turning unsuspecting males into would-be Omar Littles.

Last year, Mike Masnick covered federal Judge Otis Wright’s scathing critique of the ATF’s “made-up plot” to turn three people into drug house robbers. Only there was no drug house, no drugs or cash to rob and the ATF had to work overtime just to get the three defendants to agree to carry out this completely fabricated criminal act.

In his dismissal, Wright took aim at the ATF’s beyond-questionable tactics.

But for the undercover agent’s imagination in this case there would be no crime. The undercover agent invented his drug-courier persona, the stash house, the 20 to 25 kilograms of cocaine supposedly inside the stash house, the two individuals supposedly guarding the stash, the need to use weapons, and the idea of robbing the stash house. He even provided the putative safe house and getaway van. Dunlap brought little to the table besides his sheer presence and perhaps the hope of being able to obtain some quick cash.

Despite the Supreme Court’s admonition, the ATF manufactured this entire crime. It did not infiltrate an ongoing criminal enterprise, as there is no indication that Hudson, Whitfield, and Dunlap had any previous criminal affiliation between them.

He also pointed out that, because the criminal enterprise was completely made up, the ATF could say whatever it wanted to in order to maximize the future “wrongdoing” of the men it arrested.

In these stash-house cases, the Government’s “participation in the offense conduct” is what makes them particularly repugnant to the Constitution. Everything about the scheme—and therefore almost everything bearing upon a defendant’s ultimate sentence—hinges solely on the Government’s whim. Why were there not 10 kilograms in the stash house? Or 100? Or 1,000? Why were the guards allegedly armed—necessitating that Defendants bring weapons along with them? All of these factors came down to the ATF and the undercover agent alone. That sort of arbitrariness offends the Constitution’s due-process demands.

The ATF deployed similar tactics against Alex Pedrin. Twenty-year ATF veteran Richard Zayas — who has carried out “hundreds” of stash house stings — turned Pedrin into an aspiring stash home invader. Unfortunately for Pedrin, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wasn’t as appalled by the ATF’s actions as Judge Otis Wright.

Again, a fictitious drug house was presented as a robbery target by Zayas, watched over by “armed guards” and “containing” 40 to 50 kilos of cocaine. Pedrin never got a chance to take down the stash house. The other participants became suspicious it might be a setup. Everyone split up after spotting ATF agents, but were captured shortly thereafter. Pedrin — who never actually participated in a robbery, much less obtained any drugs — was charged with “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute.” Another “successful” sting by Agent Zayas, and not a single actual criminal was harmed.

Pedrin didn’t raise the entrapment defense, but did challenge his prosecution as being the result of “outrageous government conduct.” The court didn’t buy it, but Judge John T. Noonan dissented from the majority opinion.

The undisputed and dispositive fact is that Pedrin was not known to the government to be predisposed to raid a stash house at the time when an agent of the ATF proposed this action to him. The law is settled: “Government agents may not originate a criminal design, implant in an innocent person’s mind the disposition to commit a criminal act, and induce commission of a crime so that the government may prosecute.” Jacobson v. United States, 503 U.S. 540, 548 (1992). In this case, the ATF originated the criminal design, implanted it in Pedrin’s mind and induced him to commit the crime that the government then prosecuted.

Who has the burden of proof as to the defendant’s disposition? In Jacobson, the Supreme Court provided the answer: “[T]he prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant was disposed to commit the criminal act prior to first being approached by government agents.” The timing of the defendant’s disposition is critical: “The sole issue is whether the Government met its burden of proving that petitioner was predisposed to violate the law before the Government intervened.” No showing has been made that Pedrin was known to be predisposed to commit this crime prior to being approached by the agents of ATF. The ATF laid out the entire stash house scheme to him before he had said a single word. The prosecution of his case should be dismissed.

Noonan finishes off his dissent by pointing out what the ATF’s long history of “reverse stings” has done for it, and the government it serves. Not content to take down actual criminals engaged in actual criminal activity, the ATF has continually manufactured criminals and criminal activity. Maybe it finds this process generates better results. Maybe it just finds it easier than investigating criminals currently engaged in criminal activity. Whatever the case, Noonan doesn’t care for the ATF’s takedown of Pedrin and his co-defendants.

As the case now stands, the ATF enhances its reputation by its successful ruse. The government of the United States is diminished by its dependence on the duplicity of the agency. Because of a choice made by Pedrin or his counsel, entrapment was not argued and Jacobson was uncited. By the rules governing litigation we can affirm Pedrin’s conviction. By our commitment to a humane justice, we are called to dismiss the case made by the entrappers.

Pedrin perhaps saw Noonan as a wedge against the appeals court’s decision. An en banc hearing was requested to rehear the decision upholding his conviction. The court has declined this opportunity to further examine the ATF’s fake drug house operations. Once again, it’s Noonan who has a few words to say about the subject.

When the government puts psychological pressure on persons to commit a crime this pressure militates towards a finding of entrapment…

Here, the government […] relied on psychological tricks to persuade Pedrin to participate in the crime. First, the confidential informant was co-defendant Omar Perez’s uncle, and therefore someone to whom Perez and Pedrin, a close friend of Perez’s, were more likely to succumb than they otherwise might. Second, the informant-uncle peer pressured Pedrin and Perez by telling them that the government agent was “very cool people,” that he, the informant, “want[ed] to do the job,” and that if they could not do it, he would find people who could. Third, the government put time pressure on defendants by telling them the opportunity was available to them for only a limited period. Finally, the government agent eliminated some of the moral qualms defendants may have had about the drug dealers they were planning to rob by telling them that he had “no love” for the dealers and that they were cheating him out of his fair share of the profits from their business. These psychological tactics no less induced defendants to participate in the reverse sting than did the tactics employed by the government in Sorrells, Sherman, or Jacobson.

As to the government’s claims that Pedrin was predisposed to commit criminal acts like a stash house robbery, Noonan finds them weak and unsupported by the evidence presented.

Regarding Pedrin’s predisposition to participate in the scheme, not only did the government know nothing about him when they approached him, nothing in his record suggests that he was apt to commit a crime like this one. Pedrin was in and out of the juvenile system, and as an adult served time in jail for several misdemeanors. Pedrin had two felony convictions, one for being “belligerent to officers while being booked into jail,” and another for the crime of endangerment for which he served a prison sentence of a little over one year. Pedrin’s record contains no crimes related to dealing cocaine, robberies, or home invasions.

The only evidence supporting that Pedrin previously committed a stash house robbery is the testimony of co-defendant Terry Bombard who was more than ten years older than twenty-four-year-old Pedrin and who testified against him in exchange for a deal of ten years instead of a life sentence. The government offered no evidence independently corroborating Bombard’s testimony. On these facts, Bombard’s assertions that Pedrin previously committed stash house robberies would likely not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The conviction holds, for something as ethereal as a conspiracy to possess drugs. Apparently, this is the way the ATF fights the Drug War. (And who knows why it’s even decided to “enlist,” other than the weapons connection…) It steers people not currently engaged in criminal behavior towards criminal acts predicated on nonexistent locations and contraband. Then it serves them up to the justice system and issues press releases. Apparently, the DEA is supposed to catch the actual criminals, even if it seems to be far more interested in lifting cash from the recreational marijuana users it finds traversing the drug corridor known as the United States of America.

Filed Under: , , , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Appeals Court Sees Nothing Wrong With The ATF Busting People For Thinking About Robbing Fake Stash Houses”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Conspiracy to commit

…the ATF…has shown…why they should not exist…

At the very least it should be divided and made a division of the FBI. The states already have alcohol divisions (including entire departments) with law enforcement authority(ies) so why do we need a federal division? Same with tobacco although most of those are revenue (tax) enforcement, not law enforcement. Firearms and explosives logically should be a federal division; the question is do we really need a separate agency to enforce the laws instead of a division of an already existing agency.

And I could ask the same about the DEA.

TasMot (profile) says:

This is "Thought Crime 101"

Look at how easy it is to look good getting someone thrown in jail for a long time because they were told about a way to grab money from bad people, a victim-less crime. Who wouldn’t want to remove money from the drug lords?

But hey, who cares if some alleged loser goes to jail for a fantasy crime of robbing fantasy money from a fantasy drug house with a fantasy drug lord who has fantasy guards.

It makes it easy on the “Law Enforcement Officers” because there is no real danger for them (after all, they have full control over the entire fantasy) and the only “guns and explosives” involved are the fantasy ones they provide to the dupe who is walking into the jail sentence.

This is sooooooo much easier than going out and catching real criminals and so much safer. This dupe is going to be somebody’s girlfriend until long after the LEO’s retire. The public is no safer, the LEOs look good, the dupe goes to jail, and the public has to foot the bill. Yeah Us!

Zonker says:

The DEA robs drug stash houses and it gets to keep anything and everything it seizes with no penalty and receives a 2.88 billion dollar annual budget.

The ATF recruits some poor schmuck to join the DEA… scratch that… a “criminal conspiracy” to rob an imaginary drug stash house of an arbitrarily made up amount of non-existent drugs, cash, and or weapons from a fictional drug stash, and the poor schmuck is arrested and convicted on felony charges over the ATF’s own plot. The ATF suffers no penalty and receives a 1.2 billion dollar annual budget.

Who are the real criminals, again?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Appeals Court Sees Nothing Wrong With The ATF Busting People For Thinking About Robbing Fake Stash Houses

And neither do I, with one very important condition:

Make the punishment fit the crime.

One of the core principles of a fair justice system is that the punishment fits, and is proportional to, the crime committed. For cases like this, where the defendants are basically being punished for what amounts to a thought-crime, then the punishment should match.

I’d say telling them to think about what they might have done would be plenty punishment, and perfectly fit the ‘crime’.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...