In March a federal judge harshly criticized an ATF sting operations that have been going on all over the country. While this ruling came out of Los Angeles these sting operations have occurred all over the country including here in the Eastern District.
The sting operations vary little from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. ATF agents would pose as drug couriers about to go to a stash house. Agents would then employ the services of some unwitting individuals to for a crew to help rip off the stash house. The undercover ATF agent would make promises about how much dope the group would be able to steal, the kinds of weapons likely to be in the so-called stash house and money that could potentially be recovered. Of course the stash house was fake, there were no drugs, no money and no weapons to be recovered in this fictitious criminal enterprise. In the case out of LA government agents had an undercover warehouse that was to be the safe house after they robbed the stash house. Undercover ATF agents met their ‘crew’ there, the under-covers left the area and uniformed agents arrested the ‘crew’. In some cases the crew members had brought guns with them – guns they believed they needed because they had been told by the undercover agents that the people in the stash house had weapons.
While the ATF was arresting some arguably unsavory characters who were willing to rip off the stash houses the ATF was not taking any drugs off the street, they weren’t taking an appreciable amount of weapons off the street and they weren’t fighting or preventing crime.
In the LA case the defense moved to dismiss based on outrageous government conduct – a legal doctrine courts reserve for only the most excessive government conduct. The court wrote:
Society does not win when the Government stoops to the same level as the defendants it seeks to prosecute – especially when the Government has acted solely to achieve a conviction for a made-up crime…
Zero. That’s the amount of drugs the Government has taken off the streets as the result of this case and hundreds of fake stash house cases around the country. That’s the problem with creating crime: the Government is not making the country any safer or reducing the actual flow of drugs. But for the government’s action, the fake stash house would still be fake, the nonexistent drugs would still be nonexistent and the fictional armed guards would still be fictional.
The Government is appealing.
This case raises interesting questions about other sting operations in which federal law enforcement engages. Are any of them really legal? Should they be legal? The government should not be allowed to essentially invent crimes in order to ensnare people. Why should people trust their government, trust law enforcement, if courts sanctioned such trickery?