A federal appeals judge recently took aim at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' use of fictitious drug robbery schemes to secure lengthy prison sentences for would-be rip off crews, strongly criticizing the practice in a written opinion.

The so-called reverse stings follow a pattern: An informant or undercover agent poses as a disgruntled courier and invites a group of people to rob his employer of a half-million dollars or so worth of drugs. But Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote that such tactics raise important issues about wealth inequality in the United States and whom authorities decide to pursue.


"They pose the question whether the government may target poor, minority neighborhoods and seek to tempt their residents to commit crimes that might well result in their escape from poverty," Reinhardt wrote in the politically tinged filing.

The key agent in the case, Richard Zayas, is an ATF veteran who has worked in Maryland, and last year The Baltimore Sun examined challenges to similar operations here. They have been carried out by both the ATF and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Reinhardt's opinion was joined by the chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It was written in opposition to the court's decision not to hear a second round of arguments in an Arizona case that ended in the convictions of four defendants.

Authorities in Baltimore say reverse stings are a vital tool for catching violent criminals who make a living robbing stash houses and who are otherwise difficult to stop. But defense lawyers have questioned whether their clients were really hardened criminals.

The facts of the Arizona case also raise questions about how carefully agents select their targets. According to court documents, Zayas brought a paid confidential informant, or CI, from Miami and sent him to find "bad guys" in "a bad part of town."

Reinhardt took the instructions to mean the informant should look in neighborhoods that are home to minorities.

"In an age of widely reported unequal enforcement of the criminal laws, both at the state and federal levels, the sort of assignment given to the CI is an open invitation to racial discrimination," the judge wrote.

A federal trial judge in California recently threw out a set of charges in a similar case, but generally judges — including those in Maryland — have upheld the strategy. And despite Reinhardt's strong words, the majority of the 9th Circuit judges agreed with the decision not to rehear the Arizona case.