Federal judges to decide if ATF stings target people of color

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In an unprecedented hearing in Chicago, a group of federal judges are trying to decide if ATF agents intentionally target people of color in drug house stings.

White the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been conducting drug stash house stings for years, they have been controversial because most of the targets are African American men, some with minor or no criminal backgrounds.

Thursday's hearing affects more than 40 Chicago defendants, some of whom are serving time and others who are out on bond.

David Flowers said he was targeted by federal agents because of his race. Flowers is one of the dozens of defendants arrested in the past few years in an ATF drug stash house sting.

"They are cases where the ATF comes up with an imaginary house, supposedly in which there are drugs and all sorts of money being stored there. Then they talk to people they convince to rob the house," said Richard Kling, defense lawyer.

The drug stash house sting has been part of the ATF playbook in Chicago and around the country for years. In an unprecedented hearing, a panel of nine federal judges overseeing several separate stash cases are trying to decide if the ATF intentionally and disproportionately targets people of color in their stings.

"The question is whether or not race or ethnicity is the basis of prosecuting these guys, as opposed to the bad guys they want to go after," Kling said.

The federal government argues they target criminals in high crime areas. But an expert testifying for the defendants said in 24 stings conducted nationwide between 2006 and 2013, 74 out of 94 defendants were black and 31 of them never had any contact with federal agents before the sting.

Flowers said federal agents are incredibly persistent.

"They flew my brother in from California and met him at the airport and told him about this. That's how persistent," he said.

Flowers and his brother, who has no criminal record, were arrested in a 2011 Englewood stash house sting. Flowers said it's easy for the ATF to target people in poor black neighborhoods rather than neighborhoods of other ethnicities.

"If you give anybody an opportunity to see millions of dollars where they never had hundreds, I mean, they'll risk their life for it," he said.

The hearing continues Friday with a government expert witness who will testify that his interpretation of the data does not prove there is racial bias.

How the judges decide will have an effect on dozens of cases nationwide.
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