Fake Drug Stings Put 1,000 Behind Bars

By Victoria Kim 06/28/13

The ATF's controversial tactic snags "criminals" before they commit a crime. Has the government gone too far?

William Alexander was arrested in an ATF
sting. If convicted he faces 25 yrs in prison.
Photo via

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has locked up over 1,000 would-be criminals using fake drug-house stings, reports USA Today. The controversial tactic involves busting potential criminals by luring them to fictitious stash houses with vast amounts of money. Agents identify their targets—often convicted felons or small-time drug dealers, as well as some without criminal recordsand send an undercover operative, posing as a drug dealer's associate, to pitch the idea of robbing the dealer. To ensure a prison sentence of 10 years-plus, the ATF often promises its targets more than 5 kilos of cocainewith a street value of hundreds of thousands of dollars. ATF use of this tactic has more than quadrupled since 2003, and many targets have been arrested and charged with federal crimes.

Critics of the practiceamong them, federal judgessay the stings are aggressive, costly and too close to entrapment. Judge Richard Posner of Chicago's Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals calls it a "disreputable tactic" that creates an "increased risk of entrapment because of the potential for the extensive use of inducements and unrealistic temptations to encourage...criminal conduct." And the process is costly: A single case can last months and involve dozens of federal agents and local officers. Danger is another factor: The ATF, which operates under the US Justice Department, has supplied would-be robbers with guns in at least one case. At least seven suspects have reportedly died in fake stings in the last decade.

Former ATF supervisor David Chipmanwho left the agency last yearsays there are both "huge benefits" and "huge downsides" to the tactic. But he believes people deserve to know about how the ATF is using public resources. "Do you want police to solve crimes, or do you want them to go out and prevent crimes that haven't occurred yet?" he asks. "What are the things you're willing to do so that your kid doesn't get shot?" In its defense, the ATF argues that there's value in locking up "trigger pullers" before they commit a crime. "If these guys have an opportunity and we can knock that off before it gets to that, it's better for us," says Charlie Smith, the head of ATF's Special Operations Division. "When you go in there and you stamp him out with a 15-to-life sentence, you make an impact in that community."

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr