After a three-year federal investigation of motorcycle gangs, a federal magistrate judge has recommended dismissing drug trafficking charges against a key target because an undercover agent allegedly manufactured a crime just to charge him, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports.
The recommendation is the most recent example of a judge criticising undercover operations that lead to convictions of people who may be unlikely to ever commit crimes on their own.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach criticised the alleged conduct of an undercover Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agent in an investigation that “deployed techniques that generated a wholly new crime for the sake of pressing criminal charges against [Jeremy] Halgat,” the judge wrote in his decision.
Halgat was a 36-year-old former officer of the Vagos motorcycle gang, which was investigated by the ATF with the help of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and police from Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.
While undercover as a member of the Vagos motorcycle club, an ATF agent allegedly tried to entice Halgat to take part in illegal activities. But Halgat “was not eager to participate in … [the] scheme in any capacity,” Ferenbach wrote, adding, “His willingness to traffic in drugs only re-emerged after ATF injected itself into Halgat’s life and repeatedly solicited his services.”
The judge also concluded that an undercover ATF agent falsified information about an alleged drug transaction, and investigation supervisors didn’t dissuade him from doing so. The three-year investigation “found no contraband after executing two search warrants and indicted him [Halgat] for a crime designed and initiated by the ATF,” Ferenbach wrote.
It isn’t the first time undercover law enforcement investigations have come under scrutiny for inducing people to commit crimes they otherwise would have avoided. Since 2o03, the ATF has quadrupled the number of times it has created phony plots to rob drug stashes, USA Today reported last year. While many of those operations proved effective, they have also targeted small-time criminals and people without any criminal records.
Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago called those operations a “disreputable tactic” with “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 May, a panel of judges from California’s Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied petitions for a full court hearing to consider overturning long prison sentences for four people convicted in a similar operation. In that effort, an undercover ATF agent randomly recruited a person in a bar to rob a nonexistent stash house and bring others into the plot.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who was in favour of the hearing to consider overturning the sentences, objected to the way the undercover agent planned the imaginary crime to ensure long prison sentences. Reinhardt wrote of his concerns about that and similar undercover operations in this dissent:
In this era of mass incarceration, in which we already lock up more of our population than any other nation on Earth, it is especially curious that the government feels compelled to invent fake crimes and imprison people for long periods of time for agreeing to participate in them — people who but for the government’s scheme might not have ever entered the world of major felonies. … When the government decides to troll though poverty-stricken neighborhoods, ordering its agents to seek out people who look ‘bad’ and test them at random for willingness to break the law in order to obtain large sums of money, its conduct is unacceptable.
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