CHICAGO — Federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly dropped narcotics conspiracy charges against more than two dozen defendants accused of ripping off drug stash houses as part of controversial undercover stings that have sparked allegations across the country of entrapment and racial profiling.
The decade-old strategy is also under fire because federal authorities, as part of a ruse, led targets to think large quantities of cocaine were often stashed in the hideouts, ensuring long prison terms on their conviction because of how federal sentencing guidelines work
Experts said the move by Chicago prosecutors marked the first step back by a U.S. attorney’s office anywhere in the country in connection with the controversial law enforcement tactic.
In the court filings seeking the dismissals, prosecutors gave no clue for the unusual reversal, and a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to comment. But the move comes two months after the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke to the policy, ordering a new trial for a Naperville man who alleged he was goaded into conspiring to rob a phony drug stash house by overzealous federal agents.
The stings, led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been highly criticized for targeting mostly minority defendants, many of whom were drawn into the bogus rip-offs by informants who promised easy money at vulnerable points in their lives.
The cases are built on an elaborate ruse concocted by the ATF. Everything about the stash house is fictitious and follows a familiar script, from supposedly armed guards that need to be dealt with to the quantity of drugs purportedly stashed there. By pretending that the house contains a large amount of narcotics, authorities can vastly escalate the potential prison time defendants face, including up to life sentences.
In January, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought to drop drug conspiracy charges in seven of the nine pending stash-house cases, leading some of the judges to quickly approve the move without a hearing.
In each case, the defendants — 27 in all — still face weapons and robbery charges for the alleged scheme and potentially long prison sentences on conviction. But without the drug conspiracy charges, the mandatory minimum sentences for most of the defendants would drop from as much as 25 years in prison to just five years, according to Alison Seigler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
The ATF investigations have also faced legal backlash around the country, including in California, where last year two federal judges ruled the stings amounted to entrapment.
Katharine Tinto, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who has written extensively on the issue, said hundreds of defendants nationally have been charged as part of the drug house ruse. ATF has been using this sting for at least a decade, she said.
Tinto said she believes the decision to drop the cases in Chicago is an acknowledgement of the fact that federal agents involved in the sting set the quantity of the phony drugs, the single most important factor in driving the sentencing.
The dismissal of the seven cases likely “signals that the government is starting to take a critical look both at these tactics and the immense sentencing these tactics can bring,” Tinto said. “In this tactic the drugs are imaginary, and the amount of the drugs is set by the government.”
Steven Saltzman, who was among a small group of attorneys to first sound the alarm about the possibility of racial bias, reserved judgment on the government’s decision to dismiss the seven cases, noting that the defendants still face other charges in connection with the phony schemes.
“I’d like to hear the government explain why they are doing what they are doing and what they think they are accomplishing,” he said Thursday.
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Criticism has been particularly harsh in Chicago, where defense attorneys and even federal judges have expressed concern that the tactic is entrapment and also racially biased toward minority defendants.
“The ATF approaches what I would consider a vulnerable person … entices them with the prospect of hitting the jackpot with kilogram quantities of cocaine and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and most of them don’t have the smarts or will to resist such a temptation.,” said attorney John A. Meyer, who is representing a defendant in one of the seven cases. “And then it just escalates from there with the government providing them the details of how the robbery is going to be planned. And usually they need more than one person so they recruit their friends. Before you know it, you have two, three, four, five individuals involved in a purported plan to rob a stash house.”
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In a 2012 written opinion, 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner referred to the stings as a “disreputable tactic” and focused on how the defendants are typically targeted by government informants at a vulnerable time of their life.
“Criminals do sometimes change and get their lives back on track and we don’t want the government pushing them back into a life of crime,” he wrote.
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The next year U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo ordered prosecutors to turn over records in the wake of filings by defense attorneys who argued that since 2011 all the stash house targets charged in Chicago’s federal court had been minorities — 19 African-American and seven Latino defendants.
“The defendants have made a strong showing of potential bias,” Castillo wrote.
In a recent filing in the 7th Circuit, the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic and the Federal Defender Program maintained that between 2010 and 2013, all but one of the defendants targeted in the stash house cases were minorities.
“These figures represent a gross disparity with the racial make-up of the populace at large in the Northern District of Illinois,” the filing said.
In court records, prosecutors have denied any bias and argued that defense lawyers are misinterpreting the data.
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In its decision in November, the 7th Circuit ruled that the trial judge erred in barring Leslie Mayfield from arguing an entrapment defense on charges he conspired to rob a stash house in 2009 with a co-worker who turned out to be a government informant.
Mayfield, a former Gangster Disciples member who had been in and out of prison for more than a decade, had trouble finding work after his release from custody in 2005 and agreed to go along with the crime only after the co-worker, Jeffrey Potts, also a convicted felon, repeatedly dangled the offer in front of him, the appellate court said.
Potts “urged Mayfield to think about the financial needs of his family, saying, ‘I know you (are) tired of working for this chump change’ and ‘I know you need this money,’ among other similar lines of persuasion,” the opinion said.
The court also noted Potts had “flaunted” his expensive pickup truck, telling Mayfield that he bought it with $40,000 he had earned in another drug robbery.
Mayfield continued to decline the offers, but weeks later, after his car was damaged in a wreck and he was left with no way to get to his job in Bolingbrook, Mayfield accepted $180 from Potts to help pay for the repairs, according to the opinion. The following week, Potts indicated to Mayfield he could face gang reprisal if he didn’t repay the debt immediately.
Mayfield finally agreed to participate in the crime only after agents had paired the promise of easy cash “with an extended campaign of persuasion that played on Mayfield’s financial need and culminated in a veiled threat of reprisal from a vicious street gang,” the appellate court said.
He is serving a nearly 22-year prison sentence in federal prison.
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