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Monday, November 24, 2014

"Outrageous government conduct" in stash-house stings

A federal judge has dismissed a conspiracy indictment against a defendant accused of participating in a drug robbery in which the ATF, working with a confidential informant, set up an elaborate and imaginary stash-house robbery sting.  Courts have traditionally been slow to invoke the "outrageous government conduct" doctrine, which protects defendants against government operations that are "grossly shocking" and that "violate the universal sense of justice."  But these increasingly common stash-house stings have brought the issue to the fore.  See L.A. Times story here.

In this case, the Court distinguished between permissible government efforts to infiltrate criminal organizations, and "manufacturing crime" in order to generate convictions.   From the opinion:

“The Court finds that the Government’s extensive involvement in dreaming up this fanciful scheme—including the arbitrary amount of drugs and illusory need for weapons and extra associates—transcends the bounds of due process and renders the Government’s actions outrageous.”

In particular, the Court objected to the fact that the ATF  knew nothing about the defendant Antuan Dunlap until he was brought into the scheme five days before the alleged robbery.

“Allowing after-the-fact knowledge . . . in a situation like this creates a perverse incentive for the Government. It encourages the government to cast a wide net, trawling for crooks in seedy, poverty-ridden areas—all without an iota of suspicion that a particular person has committed similar conduct in the past.”

While this case hinged on the fact that the government manufactured the robbery sting from whole cloth (the Court noted dryly that the total amount of drugs taken off the streets in such stings is "zero"), like many such cases the sting depended on a criminal informant who brought the defendants  to the government in the first place, and kept the operation going.  This model--of an undercover agent and/or an informant cooking up nonexistent crimes--may be coming in for new scrutiny.