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June 28, 2013

Since the GOP was so troubled by ATF's work in Fast & Furious, will they now investigate drug-house stings?

Though perceived and perhaps intended as a political witch-hunt, the investigation by the GOP-led House of Representatives into the Fast & Furious program reveals some of the ugly realities of how our federal government commits crimes in order to try to go after criminals. Consequently, I hope there might be more Republican calls for hearings and investigation of ATF practices as a result of this important and huge new investigative report by USA TodayThis lengthy story in the report is headlined "ATF uses fake drugs, big bucks to snare suspects; The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has locked up more than 1,000 people using controversial sting operations that entice suspects to rob nonexistent drug stash houses. See how the stings work and who they target." Here are excerpts (and a video) from the USA Today report:

 

 

 

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency in charge of enforcing the nation's gun laws, has locked up more than 1,000 people by enticing them to rob drug stash houses that did not exist. The ploy has quietly become a key part of the ATF's crime-fighting arsenal, but also a controversial one: The stings are so aggressive and costly that some prosecutors have refused to allow them. They skirt the boundaries of entrapment, and in the past decade they have left at least seven suspects dead.

The ATF has more than quadrupled its use of such drug house operations since 2003, and officials say it intends to conduct even more as it seeks to lock up the "trigger pullers" who menace some of the most dangerous parts of inner-city America. Yet the vast scale of that effort has so far remained unknown outside the U.S. Justice Department.

To gauge its extent, USA TODAY reviewed thousands of pages of court records and agency files, plus hours of undercover recordings. Those records — many of which had never been made public — tell the story of how an ATF strategy meant to target armed and violent criminals has regularly used risky and expensive undercover stings to ensnare low-level crooks who jump at the bait of a criminal windfall....

Most of the people the ATF arrested in drug-house stings last year — about 80% — already had criminal records that included at least two felony convictions before the agency targeted them. But 13% had never before been found guilty of a serious crime, and even some of those with long rap sheets had not been charged with anything that would mark them as violent.

ATF officials reject the idea that they should focus only on people with violent records. "Are we supposed to wait for him to commit a (obscenity) murder before we start to target him as a bad guy?" said Charlie Smith, the head of ATF's Special Operations Division, which is responsible for approving each sting. "Are we going to sit back and say, well, this guy doesn't have a bad record? OK, so you know, throw him back out there, let him kill somebody, then when he gets a bad record, then we're going to put him in jail?"....

[These stings] are dangerous because, if everything goes the way agents expect, they will be confronting a crew of heavily armed men amped up to commit an especially violent crime. To deal with that risk, the ATF steers the takedowns to remote places such as forest preserves or warehouses where it's easier to take suspects by surprise and where stray bullets won't endanger the public. Then it assembles a small army of federal agents and local police officers. Smith said he recalled one pre-arrest briefing with 170 officers.

Court records show ATF agents and local police officers working with them have shot at least 13 people during takedowns in drug-house stings since 2004, killing at least seven of them. Six were killed by local police officers conducting sting operations as part of an ATF task force. Most came after suspects fired at police or tried to run them down with cars....

The drug-house stings are engineered to produce long prison sentences, and they typically do precisely that. Using court records, USA TODAY identified 484 people convicted as a result of the stings, though there are almost certainly others. Two-thirds were sent to prison for more than a decade, a sentence longer than some states impose for shootings or robberies. At least 106 are serving 20-year sentences, and nine are serving life.

It's the drugs — though non-existent — that make that possible because federal law usually imposes tougher mandatory sentences for drugs than for guns. The more drugs the agents say are likely to be in the stash house, the longer the targets' sentence is likely to be. Conspiring to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine usually carries a mandatory 10-year sentence — or 20 years if the target has already been convicted of a drug crime.

That fact has not escaped judges' notice. The ATF's stings give agents "virtually unfettered ability to inflate the amount of drugs supposedly in the house and thereby obtain a greater sentence," a federal appeals court in California said in 2010. "The ease with which the government can manipulate these factors makes us wary." Still, most courts have said tough federal sentencing laws leave them powerless to grant shorter prison terms.

To the ATF, long sentences are the point. Fifteen years "is the mark," Smith said. "You get the guy, you get him with a gun, and you can lock him up for 18 months for the gun. All you did was give this guy street creds," Smith said. "When you go in there and you stamp him out with a 15-to-life sentence, you make an impact in that community."

Because it is may be hard to generate too much public sympathy for the persons with criminal records being targeted by these ATF stings, I would be surprised if either Democrats or Republicans will start complaining anytime soon about what USA Today has uncovered about these ATF stings. But perhaps some libertarian leaning folks (paging Senator Rand Paul) will at least respond to this USA Today investigation with calls for greater transparency concerning these programs.

June 28, 2013 at 10:17 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"Most of the people the ATF arrested in drug-house stings last year — about 80% — already had criminal records that included at least two felony convictions before the agency targeted them."

So a bunch of guys with two priors and armed to the teeth are ready to go for Number Three? What the Republican Congress actually ought to investigate is why these extremely dangerous people, who obviously learned zip from their earlier sentences, are back on the street at all.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 28, 2013 10:34:48 AM

Doug,

Just a comment on this post, making the page play the video automatically (especially with sound), is __really__ annoying.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 28, 2013 12:48:12 PM

I love how the video states that it comes "too close to entrapment."

I guess they are admitting that it is NOT entrapment?

I have no sympathy for the wannabe Omar Littles (pop culture reference) of the world...

Posted by: TarlsQtr1 | Jun 28, 2013 12:51:49 PM

No officer has shot at me.
I admit that I do not shoot at officers nor do I try to run over them with a vehicle .

Posted by: Just Plain Jim | Jun 29, 2013 4:26:57 AM

i am going to be so blasted glad when this thread ages out and no longer comes up on the first page. so sick of that damn video running and hogging my internet bandwith!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 30, 2013 12:51:33 AM

can you please disable this damn video!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 30, 2013 11:05:21 PM

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