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October 7, 2019

Another update on Chicago "stash-house sting" litigation showcasing feds ugly drug war tactics

Via a series of posts last year, I was able to report updates from Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, concerning the extraordinary litigation her clinic has done in response to so-called "stash house stings" in which federal agents lure defendants into seeking to rob a (non-existent) drug stash-house.  In this 2017 post, I highlighted this lengthy Chicago Tribune article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," on this topic. 

I now see that the Chicago Tribune has this new lengthy article, headlined "Convicted in a controversial stash house sting operation, Leslie Mayfield is struggling to rebuild his life after prison." which focuses on one stash-house defendant while also telling the broader stories of these cases.  I recommend the new Tribune article in full, and here are excerpts:

Leslie Mayfield wasn’t used to entering a courtroom except in shackles.  Over the years, through his trial for conspiring to rob a drug stash house, his sentencing to a decades-long prison term and his long-shot fight to overturn his conviction on entrapment grounds, Mayfield had always been escorted into court by deputy U.S. marshals from a lockup in back....

But recently, he took a seat in U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang’s courtroom gallery, whispering to his attorney that it all felt strange as he waited for his name to be called....  Reviewing reports on Mayfield’s progress, Chang noted that since his release from prison, he’d found a job, reconnected with his family and maintained a strong motive to stay straight.  Then the judge made the transformation official, agreeing that Mayfield, 51, no longer needed court supervision.

The ruling marked a quiet milestone in the widely criticized sting operations in which the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used informants to lure unsuspecting targets into a scheme to rob drug stash houses — an undercover ruse concocted by the government.

For years, the stings were considered a smashing success, touted as a law enforcement tool to remove dangerous criminals from the streets.  But the practice came under fire in 2014 when attorneys for the University of Chicago Law School mounted a legal challenge on behalf of nearly four dozen Chicago-area defendants alleging the stings disproportionately targeted African Americans and Hispanics.

Both the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office staunchly defended the operations in court, saying they followed rigorous guidelines to ensure the stings were lawful.  While the legal effort to prove racial discrimination fell short, the tactics drew sharp rebukes from many judges.  Prosecutors began quietly dismissing the more serious charges, and over the next year or so, most of the defendants — including Mayfield — were sentenced to time served.

As the first to be cleared of all court supervision, Mayfield could be viewed as a success story, but he’s struggled in many ways.  Like so many ex-cons, Mayfield is learning how hard it can be to rebuild his life after prison. He also continues to fight guilt over the plight of his brother and cousin — both of whom he recruited into the scheme and are still serving decadeslong prison sentences....

The outlines of each stash house sting followed the same basic pattern: ATF informants identified people they believed would commit a drug-related robbery.  If the target met certain criteria — including a violent criminal background — agents approved the sting.

The elaborate operations included a fake stash house location, fictitious amounts of money and drugs, and other made-up details of a robbery plot.  An undercover agent posing as a disgruntled drug dealer followed a script aimed at convincing the target to agree on secret recordings to take part in the robbery, pledge to bring guns — and use them if necessary.

Since agents claimed that massive quantities of drugs were involved, the prosecutions often carried eye-popping sentences, sometimes even life behind bars.  Nearly all the targets, though, turned out to be African American or Hispanic — many of whom had minimal criminal histories....

Mayfield was convicted at trial in 2010 and handed a 27-year sentence.  His brother, with only a nonviolent drug conviction in his past, and his cousin both were given 25-year prison terms.

In 2014, the University of Chicago’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic led an effort to have charges against 43 defendants dismissed on grounds that the cases were racially biased.  In a landmark hearing in December 2017, nine federal judges overseeing the cases heard testimony from dueling experts on policing who came to dramatically different conclusions.

The U.S. attorney’s office denied that the stings disproportionately affected minorities, arguing that targets were selected by their propensity for violence, not race.  For instance, while out on bond, two men facing stash house-related indictments were charged in separate shootings, including the wounding of a Chicago police officer.

But many judges overseeing the cases had clear concerns that the ends did not justify the means.  In a decision that wasn’t binding but served as a guide for other judges, then-U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said the stings shared an ugly racial component and should “be relegated to the dark corridors of our past.”

While Castillo stopped short of dismissing the case before him, his 2018 ruling had a ripple effect.  At the urging of Castillo and other judges, the U.S. attorney’s office began offering plea deals and dropping counts that involved stiff mandatory minimum sentences.

The results were startling. While many of the 43 defendants faced mandatory sentences of 15 to 35 years in prison if convicted, 32 instead were released with sentences of time served after pleading guilty to lesser charges.  Most of the others received prison terms that were significantly below federal sentencing guidelines.

While the cases hadn’t been thrown out of court, Alison Siegler, the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic’s founder, noted in an April report to the 7th Circuit Bar Association that "the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the ATF have entirely stopped bringing stash house cases in Chicago, even as those cases continue to be prosecuted elsewhere in the country.”

Some prior related posts:

October 7, 2019 at 01:51 PM | Permalink

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