March 5, 2017
Deep dive into litigation over Chicago “Stash House Stings”
Because the President of the United States has often expressed concerning about crime in Chicago and has tweeted about sending in the feds, I hope the Prez and his advisers find time to check out this recent lengthy Chicago Tribune article about some of the work of the feds in this city in the recent past. The article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," merits a full read, and here is an extended taste:
For four years, Mayfield had been struggling to turn his life around after more than a decade in prison. To escape the street life, he moved to Naperville with his fiancee's family and managed to find a full-time job at a suburban electronics facility that paid 12 bucks an hour. It was there that a co-worker lured him into the robbery after weeks of effort, promising a big score.
Now, inside the police vehicle, the sounds of flash-bang grenades still ringing in his ears, Mayfield started to piece it all together. There was no stash house, no cartel drugs or associates to rob. It was a crime dreamed up by federal authorities and carried out with the help of Mayfield's co-worker to reel him in when he was at his most vulnerable.
Eight years later, Mayfield, 48, and dozens of others are at the center of a brewing legal battle in Chicago's federal court over whether the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' signature sting operation used racial bias in finding its many targets.
A team of lawyers led by the University of Chicago Law School is seeking to dismiss charges against more than 40 defendants in Chicago. The undercover probes, a staple of the ATF since the mid-1990s, have ensnared hundreds of defendants across the country. A recently unsealed study by a nationally renowned expert concluded that ATF showed a clear pattern of racial bias in picking its targets for the drug stings. The disparity between minority and white defendants was so large that there was "a zero percent likelihood" it happened by chance, the study found.
The vast majority of those swept up in the stings in Chicago were minorities, and a close examination of the criminal backgrounds of some of those targeted raises questions about whether they were truly the most dangerous gun offenders whom ATF was aiming to remove from the street.
Some had trouble even coming up with guns to do the job — including one crew that after months of preparation managed to find only one World War I-era pistol with a broken handle that could barely fire a round. Others had no history of carrying out high-risk armed robberies — a key provision in the ATF playbook designed to make sure targets were legitimate, defense lawyers argued in recent court filings....
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a lengthy motion vehemently disputing that minorities were unfairly targeted in the stash house cases, saying the expert report filed by the defense was "riddled with false assumptions that were designed to manufacture a racial disparity where none exists." The dispute sets up what could be an unprecedented hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the coming months involving a panel of district judges hearing the multiple criminal cases at once.
"It's almost like a criminal class action," said Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, which represents most of the defendants in the dozen cases they are seeking to be dismissed. "Judges are seeing this as a coordinated litigation. It's a very unusual situation."...
According to the ATF, stash house stings are a key part of the agency's national effort to target people who "show a propensity of doing harm to the public through violent behavior." Launched in Miami during the cocaine-war days of the early 1990s, the stings have been honed over the years and are run by experienced agents who use a tightly controlled playbook.
They typically begin when an informant provides the ATF information about a potential target who has expressed interest in taking part in a robbery. The informant then introduces the target to an undercover agent who poses as a disgruntled courier for a drug cartel and offers an opportunity to steal large quantities of drugs from a stash house guarded by men with guns.
In a series of conversations captured on undercover wire, the target is told if he is interested he must assemble an armed team to commit the robbery. The target and his crew are arrested after they show up on the day of the supposed crime. "At the time of arrest, the home invasion defendants are poised, at any moment, to invade a stash house, steal kilograms of cocaine guarded by armed cartel members, and in the process, kill or be killed," prosecutors wrote in their recent court filing.
In order to avoid arguments of entrapment in court, the stings are supposed to target only established robbery groups. ATF criteria also require that at least two of the participants have violent backgrounds and that all must be criminally active at the time the investigation is launched. Not only were the operations a boon for the ATF but the resulting prosecutions also netted eye-popping sentences — sometimes up to life in prison — in part because defendants were criminally liable for the amount of imaginary drugs they believed they were stealing. It didn't matter that the robbery was fake or that no drugs actually existed....
The lengthy sentences were just one pattern that raised red flags for the criminal defense bar. In case after case, the ATF stings seemed to be targeting only minorities. In early 2013, a handful of private attorneys and assistant federal defenders, all veterans at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, were so troubled by a stash house case they were defending that they asked the U.S. attorney's office for a complete list of all the defendants in similar cases sorted by race. Prosecutors rebuffed this admittedly unorthodox request. "ATF does not maintain statistics on the nature in question at either the local or national level," Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Fluhr wrote in response, court records show.
The defense lawyers then asked the judge overseeing the case to order prosecutors to turn over detailed information on how the stash house stings are run and the race of the defendants who had been charged so far. They included their own research showing more minorities were targeted. Prosecutors strenuously objected. But a few months later, U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo allowed the discovery to go forward. "History has shown a continuing difficult intersection between the issue of race and the enforcement of our nation's criminal laws," wrote Castillo, concluding that the defense team had "made a strong showing of potential bias."
Similar motions in other stash house cases soon followed, but the effort to prove racial bias was being made case-by-case with no coordination. Then in 2014, the University of Chicago's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic agreed to focus all its efforts on the 12 stash house cases and their 43 defendants. This allowed the defense attorneys to address the alleged racial bias in a coordinated effort, a critical undertaking given the government's massive resources, the attorneys said....
As the movement to fight the stash house cases gathered steam among defense attorneys, the judiciary also weighed in with some key decisions. In November 2014, the full 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted Mayfield a new trial in a rare decision that concluded Potts had "targeted Mayfield at a moment of acute financial need and against a backdrop of prolonged difficulty finding permanent, family-supporting work."
In a 2012 dissenting opinion as the case was winding through the court, appellate Judge Richard Posner had put an even finer point on it, referring to the stings as a "disreputable tactic" that used government informants to target people at a vulnerable time in their lives. Meanwhile, another ruling in July 2015 by the appellate court in Chicago resulted in the government turning over more data on the stash house stings sought by the defense. The ruling allowed the defendants to move ahead with what is believed to be the most thorough analysis of the stings anywhere in the country....
The debate is now potentially headed for a court hearing involving all defendants. The outcome could set precedent for judges in other states. "Courts tend to give law enforcement a lot of leeway," said University of California-Irvine law professor Katharine Tinto, a criminal law expert who has written extensively about the stash house stings. "… The fact that an expert is saying a federal law enforcement agency is discriminating on the basis of race is something everybody should be watching."
March 5, 2017 at 04:21 PM | Permalink
Fascinating story! Thanks for this, I'm looking forward to learning more.
Recent JD graduate, judicial law clerk: county government
Posted by: Steven King | Mar 7, 2017 5:48:56 AM