CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut
An undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) infiltrated Jeremy Halgat’s life for three years before he lured him into drug crimes “designed and engineered by the government.” He had Halgat’s home searched and found nothing. He tried to get Halgat to buy illegal guns and Halgat recited federal gun law. Finally, after many rejected requests and a heavy hand by the agent, ATF Task Force Officer Agostino Brancato got Halgat to play a role in a cocaine sale, in pleas that exploited their false friendship, and Brancato’s false claims of monetary desperation.
A federal magistrate judge recommended this week that criminal charges against Halgat carrying a term of up to 20 years in prison be dismissed.
“[T]he government’s investigation deployed techniques that generated a wholly new crime for the sake of pressing criminal charges against Halgat,” Judge Cam Ferenbach wrote.
Brancato was investigating Halgat because he was in a suspected motorcycle gang that was the target of a mission known as “Operation Pure Luck.” But Halgat had no criminal record and appeared committed to abiding by the law. Although he was an occasional cocaine user, he stated many times that he had long ago disavowed cocaine trafficking. When Brancato repeatedly asked him over the course of five weeks to buy cocaine, invoking language that they were “familia” and monetary desperation, Halgat repeatedly refused, stating that “I had a wakeup call one day” and on another occasion, “I can’t fucking help. I can’t help.”
Finally, Brancato got Halgat to play a minor role by asking him to introduce him to a friend he knew to be dealer, bringing Halgat along and coaxing Halgat to participate in the transaction Brancato had already scripted. He then falsified records about that first transaction, the court found, and a week later, got him to participate in an even bigger ruse. Brancato asked Halgat to come along to a fake major drug transaction set up to involve a drug courier for a Mexican cartel, an airplane rented by the government, and ten kilograms of cocaine from ATF’s own contraband supply. Brancato told Halgat he needed Halgat to “watch his back” and asked him to bring his guns to protect him. Halgat showed up, and he later accepted $1,000 for risking his life.
ATF used all of this to file felony drug trafficking charges against Halgat. But Judge Ferenbech recommended this week that the charges be dropped, questioning how ATF has in any way furthered the two punishment goals — rehabilitation and deterrence — by actually convincing Halgat to relapse and return to criminal activity he had disavowed.
ATF has become known for engaging in a lot of ethically, if not legally, dubious operations. Last year, a Milwaukee Sentinel investigation (one in a series of exposées on ATF) found that the ATF used mentally disabled individuals in its undercover stings, and later arrested them for actions they performed during the stings. And a pair of federal court decisions in California last year revealed that “ATF recruited ‘chronically unemployed individuals from poverty-ridden areas,’ invented a fictitious cocaine stash-house with 20 to 25 kilograms of cocaine, and asked the defendants if they had ‘a crew . . . a couple of other homies’ that could participate in a robbery. To ensure that the defendants would suffer harsher criminal penalties, the ATF agent also imagined up nonexistent guards and told the defendants to bring guns.”
“[W]as there any evidence that these arrests, as well as all other fake stash house robberies being used by the ATF to get firearm arrests, helped in any fashion the war on drugs?” the judge wrote in one of these cases.