Federal judge finds ATF drug stash house stings distasteful but not racially biased
March 12--In a decision with potentially national consequences, the chief federal judge in Chicago ruled Monday that the controversial drug stash house stings run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have an ugly racial component and should be discontinued.
"These ... cases have served to undermine legitimate law enforcement efforts in this country," U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said from the bench. "It is time for these false stash house cases to end and be relegated to the dark corridors of our past."
Despite finding that the operations were "tinged with racial overtones," however, Castillo "reluctantly" declined to dismiss the charges against the eight defendants whose cases he is overseeing, writing in a 73-page opinion that they fell short of proving the stings unfairly targeted blacks and Hispanics.
"Fortunately for the government, the question before this court is not whether the practices used in these sting operations are honorable or fair," Castillo wrote.
The ruling comes three months after Castillo and eight other district judges held a landmark hearing over the issue of whether the ATF stings were discriminatory. The other judges are expected to issue opinions of their own in coming weeks, and any significant differences among the rulings are expected to lead to further litigation on appeal.
How the 13 Chicago-area cases shake out is being closely watched by law enforcement and defense attorneys across the country, where hundreds of similar stings have been used over the past two decades. While judges in other districts have criticized the operations for inventing crime and targeting vulnerable people, Castillo's ruling was the first to call them out on issues of race.
In Chicago, the mounting issues have already prompted federal prosecutors to seek plea deals for all 43 men awaiting trial.
Leslie Mayfield, whose case was highlighted by the Tribune in a front-page article last year, could be the first to enter a guilty plea Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang, records show. Meanwhile, a court filing Monday indicated a defendant in another case could soon be freed from custody with time served.
Castillo took the unusual step Monday of ordering deputy marshals to lock his courtroom doors so spectators didn't "rush out" in the middle of his remarks, he said. He ended by calling on U.S. Attorney John Lausch to bring the long-delayed criminal cases to a close.
A spokesman for Lausch had no comment after the hearing.
Castillo, a former civil rights attorney and the first Hispanic chief judge in the Northern District of Illinois, has long hinted at his dissatisfaction with the tactics used in the stings, a staple of the ATF playbook since the mid-1990s that uses the promise of a big score to target what are supposed to be dangerous criminals. In reality, the stash houses -- as well as the drugs, cash and armed guards purportedly inside -- were dreamed up by agents.
In addition to allegations of racism, the prosecutions have been criticized because agents can arbitrarily jack up the charges by increasing the amount of fake drugs the defendants are purportedly trying to rob -- a move that can lead to stiff sentences of up to life behind bars.
Castillo himself got the ball rolling on the litigation over alleged racial disparities nearly five years ago when he ordered prosecutors to turn over evidence about the racial makeup of the stash house defendants.
At an unprecedented joint hearing in Chicago in December, the nine district judges with stash house cases heard testimony from dueling policing experts who came to dramatically different conclusions about what the data showed.
National policing expert Jeffrey Fagan testified for the defendants that when he analyzed 94 defendants in 24 stings conducted between 2006 and 2013, he found that 74 of them were black and only a handful were white -- a disparity so large that there was "a zero percent likelihood" it happened by chance.
The expert hired by the U.S. attorney's office, Max Schanzenbach, testified that Fagan used an overly broad group to compare with stash house defendants, including people from rural counties with only minor criminal convictions.
After the hearing, yet another legal battle began brewing over documents that lawyers for the defendants argued should have been turned over but were withheld by the government. The latest round of litigation clearly frustrated some of the judges -- including Castillo -- who in recent weeks have urged the U.S. attorney's office to rethink its approach to the prosecutions.
At a hearing in January, Castillo told prosecutors they should focus on resolving each case fairly rather than continuing to fight the issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This isn't about winning cases," Castillo said. "It's about doing justice. Some of these defendants have already served a lot of time. The government needs to think about that and needs to think about it very, very seriously."
In his ruling Monday, Castillo said the stash house stings "generate great disrespect for law enforcement efforts" and undermine cooperation from private citizens that is critical to success. While the goal to get violent offenders off the streets may be a noble one, the ends do not justify the means, the judge said.
Citing the recent 89th anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago, Castillo noted that the efforts by Eliot Ness and others in law enforcement involved "solid investigative work" that inspired public cooperation.
"Even during the low point of the great violence cause by the alcohol wars of Prohibition, the ATF did not seek to use 'false alcohol warehouse' tactics against any ethnic organized crime groups to promote public safety," Castillo wrote.
Castillo also said the problems with the stash house stings must be viewed "through the lens of our country's sad history of racism," including the federal government's use of severe penalties for crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s that led to huge disparities in sentences for black and white defendants convicted of narcotics offenses.
"This country cannot afford such self-inflicted wounds," Castillo said.
However, the judge said, Fagan's analysis of the Chicago-area stash house cases had its faults, particularly his use of a "comparison group" that included 292,000 people living in an eight-county area -- or roughly 10 percent of the population of men age 14 to 49.
"It seems implausible to assume that nearly 300,000 people ... would have been willing to commit a stash house robbery had they been given the opportunity," Castillo wrote.
Fagan also erred by including defendants who were brought into the scheme by others and therefore were never "targeted" by the ATF, the judge ruled.