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The Government Gets Slapped Back to District Court in a Fake Stash House Robbery Case

Fake stash house robbery cases are an embarrassment to a civilized society.

Here’s what happens. An undercover ATF agent finds a guy and does some deals with him. He then tells the guy he knows of a stash house where there are a lot of drugs and guns. Probably money too. Maybe a unicorn. Whatever it takes to get the guy interested.

The guy gets some other guys involved. They get weapons and gear up for this robbery of someone they believe is a drug dealer.

Then, with the undercover, they suit up, grab their guns, and plan to rob the stash house. All of this is on video. Then they’re arrested (the agents make sure there are no bullets in the guns).

There is so little real crime in the world, the ATF has to make fake crime to investigate.

Law enforcement is often criticized for going after only the low hanging fruit. The clever folks at the ATF are taking it a step further and making up their own fruit to go after – they’re going after synthetic fruit.

Ok, so these cases are a moral abomination and they’re completely stupid. That said, prosecutors have a lot of discretion to prosecuted stupid cases. And judges generally can’t dismiss a case because of stupidity.

An Awesome Discovery Request

One of these cases, though, wound up with the extremely clever people at the University of Chicago’s federal criminal clinic.

There, the government indicted seven folks for conspiracy to possess the cocaine that didn’t exist in the stash house that the government knew they were never going to rob.

The folks at Chicago’s federal criminal clinic decided that, while they couldn’t explore the stupidity of the program directly, they could make a preliminary showing that these are discriminatory – that black folks are prosecuted more than others – and get some really good discovery from the government. So they requested the following documents:

  • a complete listing of stash-house cases initiated by the United States Attorney with the involvement of the ATF or the FBI in the Northern District of Illinois from 2006 forward, along with disclosure of the race of each defendant charged in these cases;
  • the factual basis for the decision to initiate or pursue an investigation against the defendants named in the cases identified by the defense;
  • disclosure of any prior criminal contact between the defendants in each case and the agency responsible for investigating the case;
  • internal ATF and FBI manuals, correspondence, and other documents addressing fictitious stashhouse scenarios, including the protocols and directions to agents and informants with respect to such scenarios; and
  • any documents addressing how supervisory personnel are to ensure that individuals in such scenarios are not targeted on the basis of race, color, ancestry, or national origin.

And the district court said yes – the defense gets these documents.

The Government Wants Appellate Review

The government said that it really didn’t want to turn over these documents. Instead, it wanted the Seventh Circuit to review the district court’s decision.

So they asked the district court to dismiss the case without prejudice so they could appeal.

But a funny thing happened on the way to appellate review in United States v. Davis. The Seventh Circuit held that this trick – getting review by getting a district court to dismiss without prejudice – doesn’t make the decision appealable. Because the dismissal is only without prejudice, the government can just re-indict. And because they can just re-indict, the decision isn’t a final one. And because it isn’t a final one, it can’t be reviewed.

Grand Jury Indictments Are A Bother

Perhaps my favorite part of this case is where the government argues that the burden of securing a whole new indictment is so high that a dismissal without prejudice is really quite final for purposes of appeal.

This is really very precious. The government has to go into a grand jury that’s probably on a whole different floor from their office and put an agent on for maybe an hour. That walk and hour of testimony is wearying, to say nothing of the .00001% chance that the grand jury will decline to indict.

The Seventh Circuit took no time slapping this down:

it seems safe to say that the likelihood of a grand jury reindicting the defendants is high and the difficulty of presenting the case a second time to the grand jury is minimal, given that the government’s own undercover agent was a witness to most of the key events in the charged conspiracy.

The decision is a must read for anyone who is deep in the woods of finality and appealability. The rest of us will, I suspect, just have to wait to learn what was in that discovery that the government wanted to hide.

Or, better, maybe the government will get out of the business of prosecuting fake crime.