A federal judge in Chicago says law enforcement must stop conducting phony stash-house stings, calling them “lucrative traps” predominantly targeting minorities that should “be regulated to the dark corridors of the past.”
Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo said during a hearing today that the operations in which suspects are talked into stealing non-existent drugs from fake stash houses “must been seen through the lens of our country’s sad history of racism.”
But Castillo stopped short of a ruling that the stings — as applied to several criminal cases he is overseeing — meet the legal definition of being racially biased. As a result, he refused to dismiss the charges against the mainly blacks suspects.
A dismissal of charges would have put pressure on the government to end the stings or to overhaul how they’re conducted.
Defense 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 increasing the amount of phantom drugs they say are in the phantom houses.
Also, suspects often are charged with trying to distribute the drugs even though they never existed.
Castillo’s ruling in 2013 that there was a “strong showing of potential bias” in the stings generated years of legal motions and dueling expert reports — culminating in today’s ruling.
Castillo and eight other federal judges held rare 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 bias. Castillo would be the first to rule, though the other judges could issue their own decisions later.
The answer to whether the stings do or don’t discriminate based on race largely hinges on competing interpretations of statistics.
Jeffrey Fagan, a defense 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 just 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, defense lawyers have said they were seeking plea deals to avoid trials.
Courts have ruled previously that proving racial bias doesn’t necessarily require proof of explicit racist behavior, 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.