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Federal judge: ATF's fake drug stash-house stings need to end

"These sting operations have used tremendous public resources to investigate and prosecute a large number of principally minority individuals for fictitious crimes," wrote the 7th Circuit's chief U.S. district court judge in a 73-page ruling.

A nine-judge panel of other district court judges from the 7th Circuit (which includes Wisconsin) has been holding hearings on a certain type of sting operation the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been running. In the sting, ATF agents posing as drug cartel couriers target individuals they believe will be amenable to selling drugs. They claim to have a drug stash house and try to talk the individuals into robbing it and selling the drugs. However, there is no stash house.

These stings have troubling results. Federal sentencing guidelines set the severity of drug crimes in part on the quantity of drugs involved. Since there are no real drugs, the ATF agents report the quantity of imaginary drugs the suspects allegedly agreed to steal and sell. The courts have accepted that quantity as real for the purpose of charging and sentencing those involved. ATF agents could unilaterally up the charges by upping the quantity of imaginary drugs.

That's not all. The main purpose of these unusual hearings is to determine whether the stings discriminate against African-Americans and Hispanics. Even though people of all races use drugs at approximately the same rate, the fake drug stash-house stings are used much more often against African-Americans and Latinos, and in their neighborhoods, than other races.

Panel rules that these stings are bad policy but fails to find racism

Writing for the panel, the chief district court judge noted that the stings are rather dramatically weighted towards African-Americans. For example, 78.9 percent of stings in the Chicago area targeted African-Americans, who only make up 18 percent of the population in that area. By contrast, 11.7 percent of the stings involve white suspects, while whites make up 63 percent of the local population.

"These numbers generate great disrespect for law enforcement efforts. Disrespect for the law simply cannot be tolerated during these difficult times," wrote the judge. "It is time for these false stash house cases to end and be relegated to the dark corridors of our past."

Nevertheless, the panel refused to throw out the criminal charges of the two men who were seeking redress through these hearings. The judges said they had a "heavy burden" to prove that the cases against them were discriminatory. Unfortunately, they had not met that burden.

The judge stressed that he was not ruling the stings were "honorable or fair," but only that they had not been proven discriminatory in intent or effect.

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