ATF Stash House Stings Come Under Fire for Racial Profiling

By Paul Gaita 11/26/14

An investigation into the ATF's fake drug houses revealed that over 90% of suspects arrested were minorities.

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Since 2003, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have utilized a controversial means of taking what they describe as “violent, hardened criminals” through “stash house stings,” in which individuals with histories of drug-related crimes are lured to an alleged stash house for the purpose of stealing drugs and money, and then arrested by ATF agents.

These efforts, which have become one of the bureau’s key strategies over the past decade, have sent more than 1,000 suspected criminals to jail on conspiracy and weapon charges. But a new investigation from USA Today reveals that at least 91% of the individuals arrested in these operations were racial or ethnic minorities—rate much higher than arrests for urban-based violent crimes or other federal robbery, drug and weapon charges—which has raised concerns about issues of profiling. The operations have already faced opposition from a number of federal and district court judges, who have overturned the arrests on the grounds of constitutional violations.

In March 2014, Federal District Court Judge Otis D. Wright II dismissed 2012 charges against two defendants due to what he described as “outrageous government conduct,” adding that the bureau was “trawling for crooks in seedy, poverty-ridden areas, all without an iota of suspicions that any particular person has committed similar conduct in the past.”

Similar charges have been challenged and new trials and investigations have been initiated in Chicago among other locations. The allegations are the latest in a series of criticisms levied against stash house stings. In 2013, the ATF reportedly used mentally disabled individuals in stings and then arrested them for the very actions they were asked to perform in those operations.

A 20-year prison term was also dropped against an alleged Las Vegas motorcycle gang member without a criminal record who was subjected to a three-year campaign by an ATF agent to participate in a fake cocaine sale. The agency has vigorously defended their actions in these cases, and in the case of the Chicago allegations, refused to comply with a judge’s order to produce information about their actions.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.