The Latest Tool For Creating Criminals In The War On Drugs

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A Duplin County Sheriff’s Office special response team prepares to shatter a  door, and presumably it’s owners 4th Amendment rights, during a training exercise.. Photo by Whitney Lambert

FORT WAYNE, Indiana —  Since Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement in the United States has undergone a dangerous transformation from protecting and serving the American public to enforcing Orwellian laws under the guise of national security. American law enforcement agencies have become heavily militarized, and they’ve been granted previously unseen levels of authority when it comes to the use of confidential informants in pursuit of criminals.

The militarization can be seen on television screens and social media feeds around the nation. Instances of police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri; New York; Ohio; Baltimore and countless other cities have made police militarization and violence a national conversation. The YouTube generation has helped video after video of police brutality and aggression go viral, as they are seen by millions of impressionable minds. Through the federal 1033 Program, local and state law enforcement agencies are granted access to excess military equipment. According to the U.S. Government’s Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office, the program has transferred $4.3 billion worth of property from military to local law enforcement to date.

The militarization has been accompanied by an increased use of confidential informants (CIs) to catch both “terrorists” and “violent criminals” accused of attempting to commit robberies on so-called “stash houses.” In both cases, individuals have been approached by undercover government or other law enforcement agents, who encourage them to participate in acts of terrorism or to rob houses where drugs and weapons are allegedly stashed. Then, those individuals are arrested once they express the slightest interest in those activities.

When it comes to catching these supposedly dangerous criminals, the FBI seems to have perfected the technique. The mainstream media has even noticed something amiss with the bureau’s use of CIs to, essentially, manufacture terrorism. Rolling Stone’s Rick Perlstein questioned the motives of the bureau in a 2012 piece. In an Opinion piece for The New York Times in April 2012, David Shipler, author of “Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America,” wrote:

“This is legal, but is it legitimate? Without the F.B.I., would the culprits commit violence on their own? Is cultivating potential terrorists the best use of the manpower designed to find the real ones? Judging by their official answers, the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are sure of themselves — too sure, perhaps.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has also taken advantage of the tactic over the past decade as a tool in the “War on Drugs.” Known as “reverse-stings,” the tactic involves undercover ATF agents working with CIs to find individuals willing to participate in committing robbery on stash houses loaded with drugs and weapons. But these drugs and weapons do not exist, and neither do the houses. In fabricating these details, the ATF hopes to catch what it believes to be dangerous criminals.

Critics say the agents are walking a thin-line between catching legitimate criminals and creating the crimes themselves. Brad Heath, a journalist with USA Today, has done extensive reporting toward shining a light on the use of reverse-stings by the ATF. Heath reported in June 2013 that the ATF had locked up more than 1,000 people through reverse-stings, and it’s “more than quadrupled its use of such drug house operations since 2003.”

Watch Brad Heath’s report on reverse-stings:

The ATF exclusively looks to lock suspects up for both drug and weapons charges that will guarantee they receive mandatory minimum sentences, starting at 15 years. Weapons charges alone do not guarantee long sentences, but a weapons-gun charge combination can significantly extend sentences.

USA Today examined court records and found that at least 484 people have been been convicted as a result of reverse-stings, with more than two-thirds receiving at least ten years in prison. Although the drugs are not real, the higher the amount the suspects agree to steal from the imaginary stash house, the higher their sentence.

Indeed, in the race to apprehend criminals via reverse-stings and jack up sentences, the ATF and other agencies are employing controversial undercover tactics and making questionable arrests.

From freedom to prison in under 24 hours

“The ATF made the decision, two months after my 25th birthday, that I was trash, unfit to be a contributing member of society,” Melvin Taylor told MintPress News. “They threw away a guy that didn’t have any felony record, misdemeanor or so much as a parking ticket.”

Taylor was living in Gary, Indiana, nine years ago. He was going to school part-time and working at an auto repair shop. Up until that point, Taylor had never been arrested, let alone convicted for drugs or anything resembling a violent crime. This changed, however, when he was found guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine for his alleged involvement in planning a robbery of a stash house.

He is currently serving a 20-year sentence for possession of narcotics. Despite the charges and lengthy sentence, Taylor’s involvement in the robbery lasted less than 24 hours, and he never once saw a weapon, a drug or the stash house — which didn’t ever really exist.

Taylor’s case, like many of these cases, involves the ATF seeking out minorities in low-income situations and enticing them with the possibility of “get-rich-quick” schemes. Taylor’s only involvement in the planned robbery was through his friend, Marlyn Barnes, who was living in Fort Wayne and preparing to move back home to Gary. He was working at a retirement home, struggling to make ends meet. A friend of Barnes’s had recently been arrested and turned informant for the authorities. In an effort to keep himself out of a long stretch behind bars, Barnes’s friend agreed to help the authorities catch someone else.

He introduced Barnes to an undercover ATF agent, who posed as a disgruntled courier for drug dealers, sick of sub-par payment from his bosses and ready to rob them. The undercover agent said all he needed was a little help from a crew. For several months the friend/CI and the courier/undercover attempted to bring Barnes into the deal. Despite many discussions, Barnes never fully committed to the robbery. Realizing that Barnes was about to move out of town, the CI and the undercover agent tried one more time to get Barnes and friends involved in the scheme.

Barnes could no longer afford to pay his rent, so he was spending his last few days in town at a motel. He was saying goodbye to friends at his motel when the CI and agent stopped in to promote their fake robbery one more time. Taylor also decided to drop by. After minimal discussion on what was supposed to take place, the CI and the agent left the motel. Court records show Taylor asked only a few questions.

Yet all six men would be arrested the following day for planning to rob a house that did not exist, which was filled with drugs and guns that did not exist. Barnes would be sentenced to 30 years for his involvement, and Taylor received a 20-year sentence for his participation. The other men would agree to testify against Barnes and Taylor in exchange for deals for less prison time.

Taylor told MintPress that at no point did he see any drugs. He was arrested carrying a pistol he claims he had a license for. He says prosecutors told the other four men that what they were alleging took place did not match the government’s version of events. They warned that attempting to fight the case would result in a lengthy sentence, but also pointed out that they could cut a deal if the crew’s version of events aligned with the government’s version. The version of events the government told in court conflicts what Taylor says took place. Indeed, there seems to be a patchwork of recanted statements and changing stories.

Taylor refused to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit, and the government scored another “victory” in the war on drugs. The danger in these reverse-stings lies in the promise of ending the illicit drug trade by locking up petty criminals, who were not actually increasing the amount of drugs on the street. In Taylor’s case, the prosecution struggled to define the amount of drugs the men should be charged with attempting to steal. Since the drugs did not exist, the prosecution could only speculate on the size of the loads of fake drugs based on the size of a fuel tank they were supposed to be hidden in. This caused further controversy when Barnes and Taylor were sentenced under the premise that they were attempting to steal 40 kilograms of cocaine, while the other co-defendants were sentenced under 5 to 15 kilograms.

Taylor says it was revealed during the trial that law enforcement had been recording video and audio of the conversations that took place in the motel room. He says the prosecution refused to play the court the entire recordings, which show Taylor and Barnes discussing their skepticism of the operation. Taylor says the men all thought the idea was “crazy” and never really bought into the scheme. During his trial, one of the men, Vernell Brown, even recanted his original statement, admitting that Taylor had barely known of the plot. Still, Melvin Taylor was found guilty and sits behind bars.

Backlash against reverse-stings

Over the past year reverse-stings have become a contentious topic of debate among judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors defending the government’s tactics. In March 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Otis Wright in Los Angeles issued a damning ruling against the ATF’s stings. Judge Wright’s order threw out charges against Antuan Dunlap, who was facing charges for his involvement in another robbery of a fake stash house.

Judge Wright’s order to dismiss Dunlap’s indictment begins:

“Lead us not into temptation,” Judge Noonan warned. United States v. Black, 733 F.3d 294, 313 (Noonan, J., dissenting). But into temptation the Government has gone, ensnaring chronically unemployed individuals from poverty-ridden areas in its fake drug stash-house robberies. While undoubtedly a valid law-enforcement tool when employed to target or prevent demonstrated criminal enterprises, reverse stings offend the United States Constitution when used solely to obtain convictions.”

“The time has come to remind the Executive Branch that the Constitution charges it with law enforcement — not crime creation. A reverse-sting operation like this one transcends the bounds of due process and makes the Government the oppressor of its people,” Wright stated.

The judge said authorities lacked evidence that Dunlap had previously been involved in similar robberies or was planning to commit such a robbery in the future. Wright was also critical of the government for creating crime. “That’s the problem with creating crime: the Government is not making the country any safer or reducing the actual flow of drugs,” he wrote.

However, in December 2014, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Wright’s ruling and assigned the case to another judge. The appellate panel expressed questions about the tactic but admitted that previous court rulings forced them to overturn the ruling. Dunlap was finally cleared of three of the four charges against him last month. A jury found him not guilty for drug conspiracy, gun usage and firearm possession charges, but could not reach a decision on the robbery charge. He could potentially face that charge in a new trial.

Judge Wright was not the first to recognize issues with the reverse-stings. In 2012, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago issued a ruling that the stings lead to “an increased risk of entrapment because of ‘the potential for the extensive use of inducements and unrealistic temptations to encourage the suspects’ criminal conduct.’”

In January this year, The Associated Press reported on several other instances of charges being dismissed based on shady practices by agents of the government.

The problems with reverse-stings extend beyond the creation of crimes. Records reviewed by USA Today show that 91 percent of people locked up under these stings were racial or ethnic minorities. The large majority were black or Hispanic. Melvin King, ATF’s deputy assistant director for field operations, denies the agency is profiling individuals. He says they target “the worst of the worst,” specifically looking for violent criminals using firearms to conduct illegal activities.

Despite these assurances, critics are working to force the Department of Justice to release its records on how reverse-stings are conducted and how targets are selected. U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo ordered the government to produce information related to the stings in 2013. The Justice Department continues to fight the order.

A federal appeals court in Chicago said the operations “seems to be directed at unsophisticated, and perhaps desperate, defendants who easily snap at the bait.” In California, a federal judge said the ATF agents were“trolling poor neighborhoods” and dismissed charges against three men. Yet judges have still been reluctant to call the operations entrapment.

The fight against the stings is not only being fought by the judiciary, but by inmates across the country, who have begun to connect and share stories of their imprisonment. Melvin Taylor is one of those inmates.

In 2013, Taylor began working with another inmate, Daniel “D-Block” Egipciaco, to spread awareness about reverse-stings. Egipciaco has been incarcerated since 2005 on charges relating to another fake stash house robbery.

“I founded with my friend, Danny, because I decided our voices needed to be heard,” Taylor told MintPress. The two men run, from within different prisons, with the help of family and friends.

“ wants to abolish the use of Reverse Stings to help lessen the burden of these overcrowded prisons on taxpayers,” Egipciaco told MintPress.

Both men say they want to free themselves and the countless others who are currently imprisoned after falling into the ATF’s reverse-sting trap. Despite their present conditions, both men express hope for the future.

“I did not willingly choose to be a victim of this ‘cultural genocide’ known as reverse stings,” Taylor said. “We did not choose to be martyred by the justice system, but we can choose to not lay down.”