When federal agents fought crime during Prohibition, they didn’t resort to fantasy. They didn’t make up fake speakeasies, lure petty criminals into robbery conspiracies and charge them with plotting crimes that never happened.

Yet that’s what the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms does with its fake drug stash-house stings, a practice that U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of Chicago strongly criticized this week in a 73-page ruling that drew the historical parallel to the Eliot Ness era.

Instead of “false alcohol warehouse” tactics, Castillo wrote, agents back then relied on “solid investigative work” that inspired public respect for and cooperation with law enforcement.


But the fake stash-house stings, as Castillo wrote in a ruling that is likely to have national implications, accomplish just the opposite: They “generate great disrespect for law enforcement efforts” and use public resources to sweep up mostly minority individuals in a process that Castillo said should be “relegated to the dark corridors of the past.”

“All too often, the government’s lucrative trap attracts potential defendants with minor criminal records who might otherwise have never attempted a fictitious crime of this nature,” Castillo wrote. Between 2006 and 2013, 79 percent of defendants charged in fake stash house cases in federal court here were black, 10 percent were Latino and 12 percent white.

Surely ATF agents can uncover real crime and arrest hard-core criminals without conjuring up phony drug houses and dangling the prospect of a big robbery payday in front of small-time offenders. The flow of illegal firearms and illicit drugs in this country isn’t fantasy, and law enforcement doesn’t need racially biased fabrication to uncover it.

While federal agents hoped the fake stings would net “significant arrests of violent criminals and seizure of weapons,” the two 2012 cases from Chicago at issue before Castillo make clear the relatively meager returns. In one case, agents seized two loaded 9mm handguns, a sawed-off shotgun, masks and zip ties; in the second case, a single 9mm loaded handgun. Ironically, both cases took place on the city’s South Side — in Englewood and Woodlawn, respectively — where real crime and real victims are, sadly, not hard to find.

Castillo took the unusual step of reading his ruling from the bench and pointed out that it would likely have national implications; the stash-house stings have been used across the country since 2006.  Though the judge ruled that did not meet current legal standards for being racially biased, his 73-page ruling paints a clear picture of a process tinged from beginning to end with practices that skirt right on that edge — all to end up prosecuting defendants with mostly minor criminal records.

We agree with Castillo. Law enforcement, from ATF to the U.S. attorney’s office, should relegate such cheap stings to the dustbin of history.

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