CHICAGO - A judge in Chicago on Monday urged federal law enforcement to stop conducting stings in which undercover agents talk suspects into agreeing to steal non-existent drugs from fictitious stash houses, saying they too often target minorities and should become a relic of the past.
Reading parts of his 73-page ruling during a hearing, Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo repeatedly questioned the fairness of the phoney stash-house stings, which typically involve U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents posing as cartel couriers who promise lucrative payouts to would-be stash-house thieves.
"It's time for these false stash-house cases to end and be relegated to the dark corridors of the past," he said. "Our criminal justice system should not tolerate false stash-house cases anymore." He cited "inherent problems" in how the operations are run and that the stings "must been seen through the lens of our country's sad history of racism."
But Castillo stopped short of ruling that the stings meet the technical legal definition of being racially biased, and he refused a defence motion to dismiss charges against the mainly blacks suspects in several cases he is overseeing. Defence lawyers had argued the cases were tainted by racial bias from the start.
Castillo, the Chicago federal court's first Hispanic chief judge, started the first-of-its-kind hearing by acknowledging the historical importance of what he was about to say and its potential impact beyond Illinois. In a rare move, he ordered a court official to lock the courtroom doors so that reporters wouldn't disrupt the hearing by rushing out.
Castillo's ruling and extended comments were preceded by at least five years of filings on the race question, evidentiary hearings and dueling expert reports about the stings. Other U.S. district courts have grappled with the same issues, but none as thoroughly and forthrightly as the Chicago court.
Castillo and eight other federal judges held joint hearings in December to examine statistics-based evidence on the issue. Combined, the judges are overseeing a dozen different criminal cases involving more than 40 suspects arrested in stash-house stings, but they all heard the same evidence on the question about racial bias. Castillo was the first to rule, though the other judges could issue their own decisions later.
Defence attorneys contend the stings discriminate because they overwhelmingly target blacks and Latinos. They also criticize how law enforcement can arbitrarily increase the severity of charges simply by raising the amount of drugs they say are in the stash houses. Also, suspects often are charged with trying to distribute the drugs, even though the drugs never existed.
The answer to whether the stings discriminate based on race largely hinges on competing interpretations of statistics.
Jeffrey Fagan, a defence expert, testified in December that out of 94 stash-house defendants in the Chicago area between 2006 and 2013, 74 were black, 12 were Hispanic and eight were white. If the ATF criteria for picking targets were truly colorblind, he said, far more whites would have been snared.
But government witness Max Schanzenbach said Fagan's methodology was flawed. He said it's only natural that trafficking-related stings are focused where trafficking activity is highest — in low-income areas of Chicago that have a higher concentration of blacks and Hispanics.
Since the hearings, defence lawyers have said they were seeking plea deals to avoid trials. But Castillo indicated he would issue a ruling Monday even if all the defendants strike plea agreements.
Courts have ruled previously that proving racial bias doesn't necessarily require proof of explicit racist behaviour, such as an official caught using racial slurs. It can sometimes be enough to point to statistical evidence that a racial group is disproportionately hurt by a policy.
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