The question the government doesn't want to answer is whether we're better off pursuing fake criminals or capturing the real ones. Law enforcement does both, but sting operations -- both of the terrorist and the drug variety -- have been increasing over the years, turning officers and agents into actors and stage directors.
The FBI has been crafting "terrorists" from a collection of outcasts, retirees, and the developmentally disabled for years. Canada's law enforcement is just as willing to score on unguarded nets, traipsing happily over the line between "highly questionable" and "actual entrapment" in its own terrorist "investigations."
The ATF and DEA have combined forces to drag weapons into drug dealing using elaborate sting operations to entice no small number of people to get prepped to rob a nonexistent stash house of imaginary drugs. This would be bad enough, as it often appears the ATF is willing to bust anyone that engages in speculation about stash house robberies. Adding insult to injury, the federal government recommends sentences based on the fake amount of fake drugs not actually found in the fake stash house suspects talked about robbing.
Judge Otis Wright tore into the government for its willingness to craft imaginary stash house robberies and followed it up by asking for convicted suspects to be locked up for real years, based on nothing more than what the government told defendants would be located in the fake stash house.
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 government loves these cases because they're easy wins. There are no suspects to track down after a robbery. Instead, every suspect is safely housed in an undercover agent's vehicle, unwittingly waiting to be arrested. The suspects never lay low until the heat dies down, forcing the government to perform actual investigative work. Instead, the suspects are guided through the process of planning for a stash house robbery, including being given weapons to do so if they fail to provide their own. With massive sentences predicated on made-up drug quantities hanging over their heads, plea deals favorable to federal prosecutors are easy to obtain.
Another federal judge has plenty of problems with the government's stash house stings. Pennsylvania's Gerald McHugh has just issued a memorandum [PDF] trimming back the sentence handed to Clifton McLean, mainly due to the government's sentencing recommendation being based on the amount of drugs it said would be found at the fake stash house, rather than on anything tangible. [h/t Brad Heath]
Early last year, the judge took note [PDF] of the government's willingness to push people into actions they may not otherwise have taken.
Initially, there is no indication that McLean was involved in an ongoing criminal enterprise to commit stash house robberies prior to his initial contact with the government informant, and there is also no indication that the government believed it was infiltrating an already-existing conspiracy to commit such a robbery. Rather, in the best case scenario for the government, a newly created conspiracy was hatched when McLean allegedly approached the CI for the first time, though this initiation is less than certain. This factor weighs in favor of McLean.
The third factor, and certainly one of the most important, is the nature of government instigation or origination of the crime. The outcome of this inquiry is less clear. The government has asserted that the paid CI in this case was initially approached by McLean, who then inquired about whether the CI knew of any stash houses that McLean could rob. There are many questions surrounding this initial engagement. The encounter was not recorded, which is to be expected since the government asserts that the meeting was not planned, and a CI cannot be expected to wear a wire at all times. However, what this means is that the only person, aside from McLean, who can speak to what occurred at that meeting is the CI, who was not present to testify at the evidentiary hearing. While this is certainly a valid trial strategy, and may reflect government concern over the informant’s safety, I am hesitant simply to adopt this second-hand account of what occurred at this meeting, as told by the agents to whom the CI reported. I certainly do not discredit the testimony of the agents, but all they can testify to is what the CI relayed to them and their impression of his credibility. On top of this, the determination of whether McLean was inquiring about a stash house robbery is based on the CI’s account of slang that McLean used and the CI’s personal interpretation of that slang, with no additional context provided.
Unlike other stings the ATF has run, McLean showed more interest than most in pursuing a stash house robbery. But even though the judge didn't see enough to indicate entrapment, he's less pleased with the government's sentencing recommendations.
The structure of sting operations such as this is highly problematic. In practical terms, “sentencing discretion is delegated all the way down to the individual drug agent operating in the field.” United States v. Staufer, 38 F.3d 1103, 1107 (9th Cir. 1994). Although the Government defends the specified amount as necessary to protect its agents, I find that rationale troublesome on several levels. First, law enforcement’s tactical concerns should not control either the severity of charges against a defendant or the range of sentences. To the extent that the Government constructs a crime, its elements should be related to a defendant’s culpability. Here, where the record is clear that McLean was “in for a penny, in for a pound,” specifying such a high amount does not truly bear on his culpability. Once the Government established that McLean was willing to engage in an armed robbery of any quantity large enough to resell, its core law enforcement objective was met.
The Government clearly had an interest in exposing the scope of his capability and connections, and in seizing as great a quantity of drugs as possible. No similar interest exists where the crime itself is fictional.
But if the objective is really to hit stash house sting suspects with the full force of sentencing guidelines, then the objective is "whatever nets the most years in prison." The judge here finds the government always conjures up a quantity of fake drugs that will generate the longest minimum sentence.
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.
[B]y the Government’s reasoning, the very nature of this type of undercover operation necessarily requires, for the safety of its operatives, a scenario that automatically triggers mandatory minimum sentences, even if the target of the sting would otherwise have taken the bait, and regardless of whether the suspect had ever before dealt in quantities of this kind.
The government's "evidence" of its fake drug amounts is nothing more than agents' testimony. They can swear they told the defendant there would be more than 5 kilos of drugs. It makes little difference that there were never any drugs to be stolen. The government then wraps itself in its "operative safety" blanket and hopes the judge won't question its inexplicable need to protect its agents by consulting drug sentencing guidelines. Judge McHugh, however, did take a look at it, and doesn't like what he sees -- a government agency pushing judges towards harsher sentences by insinuating anything less would be dangerous for law enforcement agents.
Preliminarily, I have an institutional concern that the Government couches the justification for its techniques in terms of officer safety. Unquestionably, undercover operatives are individuals of great commitment and courage who take risks average citizens would find intolerable. Their safety must be of paramount concern. At the same time, however, tying the physical safety of an agent to a mandatory triggering quantity of drugs is problematic. Such a rationale cannot help but inhibit any judge who must consider the implications of sting operations because no responsible judicial officer would ever want to place agents in harm’s way. But without in any way jeopardizing the safety of any agent, a court can certainly ask why, even if it is necessary for purposes of “credibility” to specify certain amounts as part of an operation, why is it necessary to charge the target of the investigation with such high amounts in every case?
In short, nothing about the actual record in this case validates the proposition advanced by the Government that substantial amounts of cocaine are fundamental to the success of its operation.
This not only prevents judges from exercising discretion, it also prevents the jury from doing its job properly.
Absent some constitutional prohibition, because the jury found McLean guilty of conspiring to possess 5 kilograms or more of cocaine, I am bound to sentence him accordingly. This underscores the due process concerns at the heart of sting operations. Since no drugs existed, McLean was charged with conspiring and attempting to possess the amount of drugs the Government decided to offer him, after he had agreed to participate in a fictional robbery. The Government made a deliberate choice concerning which offenses and quantities to charge, a choice that then constrains the jury.
The judge goes on to note the government even cited a decision finding against mandatory minimum sentences to support its argument for a mandatory minimum sentence. On top of that, it used the fake drug quantity to ensure it got the sentence it sought, leaving no room for meddling from troublesome judges or jurors.
It is certainly true that the jury “found” the defendant guilty of a conspiracy to possess greater than 5 kg of cocaine, but the Government assured such a result in advance by the script that it wrote and the charges that it brought. In that sense, a stash house sting operation is the “perfect” crime, at least from the standpoint of the prosecution, in that it predetermines both verdict and sentence.
In the end, Judge McHugh does what he can… which isn't much. He boots the government's mandatory minimum-triggering claim of five kilograms and uses a lower amount. In total, it only takes away five years of McLean's 19-year sentence. But McHugh shows his courtroom won't be a place where the government can expect easy wins with prosecutions where the fix is in from the moment the indictment drops.
Some courts have suggested that so long as there is a “reasonable” explanation for the amount of drugs specified in an undercover operation the Government’s conduct will pass constitutional muster. I am not prepared to adopt such an approach where the Government’s premise cannot be tested in any meaningful way and is refuted by specific evidence of record...
To the extent that principles of Due Process are meant to be a check on government power, there is no more fundamental interest than liberty. A sting operation that constructs a crime implicates liberty interests in a unique way, in that the Government seeks out its citizens for the purpose of testing their willingness to commit a criminal act. There can be no greater manifestation of the coercive power of Government than creating what is, in effect, a morality test, while specifying the penalty for failing that test in advance.
A check on government power is what's needed. Very few courts have been willing to place themselves between defendants and law enforcement agencies that would rather create criminals than go after those already in circulation.