The good news from a crime-fighting perspective is that the ATF has locked up more than 1,000 criminals—often with sentences spanning more than a decade—who were caught trying to rob drug houses over the past decade. The questionable news? Those drug houses didn't actually exist. All the arrests came in sting operations, and USA Today weighs in with an investigative piece questioning whether the increasingly popular tactic is worth it. Judges and even some prosecutors have begun raising objections that the stings go too far into the gray zone of entrapment. Undercover agents approach potential sting targets with the idea, and critics say the lure of a big payday tilts desperate, low-level criminals into a high-stakes crime they otherwise wouldn't commit.
While the sting strategy is widely known when it comes to terror suspects, the scope of its use by the Justice Department in going after would-be drug-house robbers has gone largely under the radar. Two quotes help tell story:
- Judge: It's a "disreputable tactic" that creates "an increased risk of entrapment because of the potential for the extensive use of inducements and unrealistic temptations to encourage the suspects' criminal conduct," wrote a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
- ATF official: "Are we supposed to wait for him to commit a [obscenity] murder before we start to target him as a bad guy?" asks an ATF supervisor defending the idea of going after so-far nonviolent criminals. "Are we going to sit back and say, well, this guy doesn't have a bad record? OK, so you know, throw him back out there, let him kill somebody, then when he gets a bad record, then we're going to put him in jail?"
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, which points out that use of the stings has more than quadrupled since 2003.