Since, 2003, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has been ratcheting up the use of so-called “stash house stings” — controversial operations in which undercover agents lure individuals to rob a fake stash house and then lob them with harsh prison charges to get them off the streets. The strategy was intended to snag individuals with long histories of violence, but past reports have suggested they also convince individuals with no record at all to break the law.
A new USA Today analysis of available data found that a stunning majority of the individuals who have been arrested for these stings — 91 percent — were minorities, mostly black and Hispanic. The statistic raises new questions about a tactic that draws individuals into criminal activity who weren’t otherwise in the midst of doing anything wrong.
Stings such as the stash-house schemes that lure individuals into fake crimes were intended to capture people with histories of violence who might otherwise escape law enforcement, and sometimes just those sorts of people end up caught in these fake stings. But many others have also been caught up in these stings. Past reports have found that the poor and mentally disabled individuals have been particular targets. This newest report suggests that minorities are also disproportionate victims.
The problem with these stings is because they are not addressing existing crime, ATF agents have even more discretion than other law enforcement officers to decide who to target. If they go into a largely African American neighborhood, or approach African Americans, then only black individuals will ultimately be charged with these fabricated crimes. The power in the hands of agents to determine what sort of crime will occur and who will be involved has alarmed several judges and prosecutors. Some prosecutors have refused to pursue these stings, worried that they verge on illegal entrapment. Judges, meanwhile, have found that the “arbitrariness” of these stings “offends the Constitution’s due process demands.” Just last week, a federal judge blasted an ATF agent for luring a man with no criminal record into a cocaine deal, even after the man repeatedly rejected his requests over the course of many weeks.
Several lawsuits are already alleging that ATF agents have racially profiled. But while these plaintiffs continue batles in court just for access to the data behind these stings, USA Today analyzed a sample of 635 defendants about whom it had information. Of those, 579 were designated minorities based on available information, including 55 percent black and 33 percent Hispanic. Indeed, blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately representated throughout the criminal justice system. But even accounting for the higher likelihood that African Americans will already have a criminal history that would make them more vulnerable to these stings, blacks were grossly over-represented among these defendants. Overall, minorities make up about 71 percent of individuals convicted for federal gun and drug defendants.