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ATF investigations push the limit of good police practice, P.2

In our previous post, we began speaking about investigation procedures currently used by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As we noted, it is not uncommon for the agency to use stings to draw suspects into agreeing to rob drug stash houses that do not exist. The practice has been called into question, even among those responsible for prosecuting gun and drug crimes.


The fictional aspect of the crimes and the agency’s reliance on confidential informants to draw in prospective robbers has led to problems. In some cases, the law enforcement looked too much like entrapment, and has led to acquittal. Other cases have been abandoned because supervisors thought the selected targets were inappropriate.

Still, acquittals in such cases are uncommon. Out of 512 completed prosecutions of such cases, juries acquitted 22 people because they either though the defendant had been entrapped or they were not convinced the defendant was involved enough in the crime to be considered a part of the conspiracy.

Entrapment is a defense used in criminal cases, and says that the government is not allowed to pressure an innocent person to commit a crime. The concept is rather narrow in its application as a defense to criminal liability, and the government routinely conducts sting operations. In the ATF stings, though, there is more fiction going on than in most sting operations.

Whether or the ATF stings constitute “good law enforcement” is question open to debate. Federal courts have, for the most part, approved of the ATF stings. Still, there has been some degree of uncertainty expressed, and it is important for those facing such charges—and any criminal charges—to take seriously the possibility that officers may not have acted appropriately in gathering evidence of criminal activity.

Source: USA Today, “ATF uses fake drugs, big bucks to snare suspects,” Brad Heath, June 28, 2013. 

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