A federal jury on Friday cleared a Los Angeles man of drug and gun-related charges, finding against prosecutors in a case involving a controversial tactic used by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that lures suspects into plotting a robbery of a fictitious stash house invented by federal agents.
Jurors found Antuan Dunlap, 25, not guilty of drug conspiracy, gun usage and firearm possession charges after deliberating less than a day. The panel deadlocked on a fourth count of robbery. Prosecutors have the option of bringing a new trial against Dunlap on the robbery charge.
The case against Dunlap had previously been thrown out by a U.S. District judge who made the extraordinary ruling that the federal agents' actions in the case amounted to "outrageous government misconduct" when they made up a nonexistent crime opportunity and tempted poor people with the promise of a quick payday.
Dunlap was arrested as part of a "reverse sting" operation the ATF has been using for more than a decade, in which an undercover agent poses as a disgruntled drug courier and proposes robbing a fictional house stashed with piles of pure cocaine.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal in December overturned Judge Otis D. Wright II's ruling and revived the case, with the justices writing that they "question the wisdom" of the tactic, but were bound by previous decisions that have repeatedly upheld cases brought by using the sting operation. The appellate court also granted prosecutors' request that the case be assigned to another judge rather than sending it back to Wright, who dismissed the case and scathingly rebuked the ATF practice.
Other judges in different parts of the country, including some on the 9th Circuit and the 7th Circuit in Chicago, have been similarly critical of the stings, finding they disproportionately hurt the impoverished and are an improper use of the federal government's resources.
Friday's verdict, acquitting Dunlap of most counts, is a rare outcome in stash house cases, which has resulted in more than 1,000 convictions across the country. Because of the hefty mandatory minimum sentences triggered by the arbitrary quantity of fake drugs devised by agents, the majority of defendants opt to plead guilty to lesser charges rather than risk lengthy prison terms.
In Los Angeles, where agents have been using the tactic since 2002, about 100 people have been convicted, resulting in sentences up to life in prison.
Dunlap's attorney, Lawrence Jay Litman, said Dunlap had a strong case because he was brought onto the scheme at the last minute by two other men who had been plotting to rob the stash house for two months. The two others, who have pleaded guilty, had initially wanted to recruit another man to join the robbery crew, but that man was out of town, Litman said.
In this week's trial, Dunlap took the stand in his own defense and told jurors he met up with the two men and an undercover agent five days before the robbery was to take place but never agreed to commit the crime, Litman said.
"They were planning the robbery for 62 days, and he was brought in on the last 5 days," Litman said.
Carlos Canino, head of the ATF's field office in Los Angeles, said he respected the jury's decision but believed that the tactic was appropriately applied in the case.
"It's a good tool, it's innovative, and when it's right to use, we'll use it," he said.
Canino, who has personally worked on hundreds of such stash house sting cases, said he was only aware of one or two acquittals in cases resulting from the stings.