Appeals Court Judge Tears Into ATF's Life-Wrecking, Discriminatory Stash House Stings
from the more-of-this-please dept
The ATF’s stash house stings are one of the worst things about federal law enforcement. And it’s a crowded field! Sure, the FBI routinely engages in something approaching entrapment when it turns people with self-esteem problems and/or serious mental health issues into terrorists. But the FBI can’t tell a judge how much terrorism to charge defendants with. The ATF stings — involving imaginary drugs hidden in fictitious stash houses — give the government the ability to trigger mandatory minimum sentences simply by claiming the fake stash of drugs was more than five kilos — automatically setting up defendants for 20-year prison terms.
Another victim of the ATF’s stash house stings is fighting his conviction in court. Daryle Lamont Sellers hopes to prove the ATF’s stash house stings are racially-biased. There’s some evidence this is the case. Researchers found sting operations in Chicago netted a disproportionate number of minority suspects. A review of hundreds of court cases by the USA Today showed the ATF targeted minorities 91% of the time.
Sellers says the ATF is engaging in selective enforcement. To do that, he needs information the ATF has on hand, but is refusing to hand over. The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court has declared Sellers should have access to this information because the claim he’s making isn’t the same as selective prosecution, which requires Sellers to show more than he has in this case. From the decision [PDF]:
To succeed on his selective enforcement claim, Sellers must show that the enforcement had a discriminatory effect and was motivated by a discriminatory purpose. He is unlikely to meet this demanding standard without information that only the government has. Sellers can obtain this information through discovery if he makes a threshold showing. We must decide what that showing is. We hold that in these stash house reverse-sting cases, claims of selective enforcement are governed by a less rigorous standard than that applied to claims of selective prosecution under United States v. Armstrong, 517 U.S. 456 (1996).
This is good news for Sellers. And it’s potentially good news for others roped in by ATF stings. If he obtains information showing discriminatory motivation, minority suspects are going to have another way to fight these charges in court.
But the entire opinion is worth reading past the opening declaration in favor of Sellers. Judge Jacqueline Nguyen tees off on the ATF in her concurring opinion, pointing out biased enforcement is only a small part of stash house sting operations’ problems.
While these operations do “not . . . reduc[e] the actual flow of drugs,”2 the government touts them as an important tool “to catch people inclined to commit home invasions.” United States v. Hudson, 3 F. Supp. 3d 772, 786 (C.D. Cal. 2014), rev’d sub nom. United States v. Dunlap, 593 F. App’x 619 (9th Cir. 2014). But when the government fails to target known criminal enterprises or people suspected of engaging in serious crimes, the practice is highly questionable and raises troubling questions about race-based targeting.
There is no legitimate dispute that these stings primarily affect people of color, but the government has steadfastly resisted any defense attempt to determine whether enforcement is racially biased.
She goes on to point out the government outsources the target selection to informants — ones who have their own interests to serve and protect. This makes it clear the ATF is searching for dangerous criminals to talk into fake stash house robberies. It’s more than willing to take whoever — which more often than not is a minority with no history of violent crime or armed robbery. From there, the government gets to decide how many years of a suspect’s life it’s willing to try to take away. Invariably, every fake drug stash is large enough to demand 20-year minimum sentences.
Then she gets right to the heart of the matter: of course the ATF’s sting operations are racially-biased. They’re based on a bunch of lies, which gives the ATF the opportunity to pick anyone as its fall guy. But the agency always seems to end up arresting the same sort of people.
Law enforcement agents, on the other hand, do not deal with a closed universe of criminal suspects. When conducting a reverse sting, literally anyone could be a target. See Black, 733 F.3d at 315 (Noonan, J., dissenting) (“In the population of this country, there is an indefinite number of persons who dream of clever and unlawful schemes to make money. Does their dreamy amorality cast them all as fit candidates for a sting by their government?”). There is no reason to suspect that persons of a particular race are more likely to agree to commit a stash house robbery unless one believes that persons of that race are inherently more prone to committing violent crime for profit—a dangerously racist view that has no place in the law. If law enforcement agents target potential stash house robbers in a race-neutral way, then the racial breakdown of targeted individuals would presumably closely mirror that in the community. If it doesn’t, then that’s potentially indicative that the agents or their informants are using discriminatory procedures.
This is what the ATF does dozens of times a year. It takes fake drugs and fake stash houses and turns them into real prison sentences. And, so far, it’s been getting away with it. But it sounds like courts are beginning to tire of locking people up for unwittingly engaging in the ATF’s charades. At some point, this will all come crashing down on the feds, but until then dangerous criminals will continue to walk the streets while down-on-their-luck nobodies serve their prison terms for them.