The chief judge of U.S. District Court in Chicago has questioned whether the federal government in a drug case racially profiled blacks and Latinos -- raising a sensitive issue that for years has arisen in various forms nationwide.
Judge Ruben Castillo wrote in his decision this week that since 2011, 19 blacks and seven Latinos have been charged in drug stings in the Chicago area, in which agents used an informant to talk suspects into robbing fake stash houses. Over the same period, no whites have been charged, he wrote, citing defense filings.
The decision, which was posted late Wednesday, has potential to reach beyond Chicago. Law enforcement in other metropolitan areas has been accused of racial profiling, and similar stings are done nationwide.
Castillo says there's a "strong showing of potential bias" and ordered the government to turn over the name and race of each defendant in such cases brought by federal prosecutors in the Chicago area since 2006.
On Thursday, one defense attorney in the case welcomed the ruling as "potentially groundbreaking."
"It is groundbreaking if, in the end, the court recognizes that these prosecutions are tinged with a racial animus," said Michael Falconer, who represents one of five defendants in the case. "With this ruling, Castillo has already gone further than I could have hoped for."
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, Randall Samborn, declined to comment on the ruling.
Last month, Castillo became the first Hispanic chief judge for the northern Illinois district. He told The Associated Press then that one of his priorities was to ensure diversity issues were looked at more closely at the courthouse.
In the Chicago case, prosecutors say the five men were charged after an undercover agent told them he knew of a house where Mexican cartel operatives kept a stash of 20 kilograms of cocaine with a street value in the tens of thousands of dollars. The men, who allegedly spoke of cutting the throats of any stash-house guards, were arrested on Aug. 14 last year as they prepared to storm the location.
In addition to attempted robbery, the suspects -- as is common practice in such stings -- also were charged with conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute it, even though the product never actually existed. A conviction on that charge alone carries a minimum 10-year sentence and maximum life term.
Castillo in his ruling also asks for any instructions that prosecutors and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms provide to employees on how to avoid profiling based on race. A spokesman for the ATF in Chicago, Thomas Ahern, also declined to comment Thursday.
Attorneys for a defendant in the case, Abraham Brown, have sharply criticized the practice of using fake stash houses.
"The informant and agent search for their prey -- someone whom they can convince to act on their phony plan," their motion, filed in June, says. Numbers indicating most targets are black, it adds, "presents a stark discriminatory picture."
In their reply, prosecutors said there was no evidence that's true. To show any such bias, the government argued the defense had to show that non-minorities with criminal histories who were potential sting targets "were not further investigated or prosecuted because of their race."
Steve Greenberg, a Chicago defense attorney unconnected to the case in Castillo's ruling, said it was rare for a judge to even broach the issue of prosecutors' impartiality.
"And for a judge to question prosecutors' decisions on racial grounds -- I've never seen that before," Greenberg said. "He's not saying they are doing it -- racial profiling -- but he is saying, `I have seen enough to make me wonder if there is something here."'
The judge gave the government until Aug. 23 to turn over the asked-for data. If he eventually decides racial profiling was involved, he could dismiss all the charges, Falconer said.
It's not the first time Castillo, a former civil rights attorney, has raised questions about race and the law.
In 2000, in approving a settlement involving accusations that a suburban village engaged in racial profiling, Castillo wrote that the phenomenon was a "deadly cancer on our justice system."
The question regarding the fairness of stash-house stings has arisen before in this district, court filings show.
Last year, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago found such stings were acceptable. But in a partial dissent, Judge Richard Posner wrote there is a greater risk of illegally entrapping suspects because of the promise of hundreds of thousands in drug money dangled before targets.
"Most robberies, even bank robberies, net little money for the robber," he wrote. "But a stash house is a potential gold mine." He added that such stings are "a disreputable tactic."