Black man swept up in ATF sting wins legal victory, but stiffer prosecution looms

A federal judge in Albuquerque has concluded the methods used by federal agents in a 2016 undercover sting operation made it likely they would arrest a disproportionate number of minorities. And the bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) did nothing to avoid the potential racial bias as agents chose people to target, Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote in a five-page order issued Monday. Parker’s ruling means Yusef Casanova, who was arrested last year, has the go-ahead to seek evidence to prove the agency targeted him at least in part because he was black. Casanova’s procedural legal victory comes as black community leaders in Albuquerque demand answers from federal and local officials about the operation. Agents arrested 103 people — 28 of whom were black, or 27 percent — a dramatic overrepresentation compared to Albuquerque’s 3 percent black population.

Black community wants answers on ATF’s Albuquerque sting, says it was ‘punch in the face’

Black community leaders and citizens want to know who invited out-of-town federal agents and informants into Albuquerque and how the decision was made to focus an undercover sting operation on an impoverished, largely minority section of the city, netting a highly disproportionate number of black defendants. They plan to put those and other questions into a letter to the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We want to know exactly what happened and why,” said Patrick Barrett, a member of the two organizations drafting the letter — the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Sankofa Men’s Leadership Exchange, a grassroots organization of black men. Barrett and others interviewed for this story were reacting to a NMID investigation of the sting published last month. NMID found 28 of the 103 people arrested — or 27 percent — were black in Albuquerque, whose black population is 3 percent.

Maps: ATF Albuquerque sting in context

Competing narratives have emerged about how agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) chose targets for a sweeping undercover sting operation in Albuquerque last year. A handful of defense attorneys who represent people arrested in the sting allege “selective enforcement” — essentially that ATF engaged in racial profiling as part of the agency’s strategy. They point to statistics: 28 of the 103 defendants are black — 27 percent — in a city with a 3 percent black population, and in a state where blacks made up just 5 percent of drug and gun defendants in federal court from 2006 to 2015. The defense lawyers also have questioned some of ATF’s tactics, many of which were detailed in a pair of New Mexico In Depth stories published last month, as they seek more information about the operation and, ultimately, dismissal of their clients’ charges. ATF has repeatedly ignored NMID’s request for comment about the operation.

Federal public defender: In America people of color have been labeled with a broad brush

On May 7, New Mexico In Depth published a story that closely examined the mechanics and results of a high-profile undercover sting operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) last year in Albuquerque. At a news conference in August, federal officials trumpeted the sting operation as an “unprecedented” success, saying they brought in “the best of the best to deal with the worst of the worst.”

NMID found a far more complicated picture. Rather than the “worst of the worst,” ATF arrested many low-level individuals who were struggling with substance abuse issues. Some were homeless or living in cars. Many of those arrested were not the violent, hardened criminals or the big-time traffickers federal officials said they were after.

ATF used traveling, well-paid informants in ABQ sting

One of the men who helped the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) search for potential targets in a sweeping undercover drug and gun sting operation in Albuquerque last year is paid an $80,000 annual salary, court filings show. The man appears to have been released early from a 10-year federal prison sentence and goes “around the country with his handlers creating crime for the government to prosecute” as a ‘“confidential informant,” the documents say. Another informant ATF brought to Albuquerque for the operation is paid $1,400 a week plus occasional “bonuses,” he said under oath, according to a recording from a state court hearing obtained by New Mexico In Depth. He did not say what the bonuses were for. That informant considers working for the ATF his full-time job.

Feds’ sting ensnared many ABQ blacks, not ‘worst of the worst’

For three days Yusef Casanova hunted for methamphetamine and a gun. On June 4, 2016, a friend met a man in the heart of a hardscrabble area of Albuquerque pocked with pawn shops but dotted with well-loved front yards. They stood outside the Allsup’s convenience store at Zuni Road and Kentucky Street SE. The stranger wanted meth, firearms; the friend brought Casanova in. Like Casanova and his friend, the man was black.

Martinez vetoes solitary reform, ‘ban the box’ bills

Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday vetoed two criminal justice reform bills that passed the Legislature with bipartisan support. The first, House Bill 175, would have banned the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s jails and prisons for pregnant women and children. The measure also would have restricted the controversial practice of leaving people in a cell for 22 hours a day or more with no meaningful human interaction for people living with mental illness. Martinez, a two-term Republican governor who previously spent 25 years as a prosecutor, also vetoed a bill that would have restricted private employers from inquiring about job applicants’ criminal histories. In her veto message on the solitary confinement bill, Martinez cited the safety of corrections officers and a need to lock certain children sentenced to adult prisons away alone as her reasons for killing the measure.

Competitor: ABQ ‘rigged’ new body cam agreement for Taser

A Georgia-based police body camera manufacturer is alleging Albuquerque officials used an “inappropriate and illegal” process to reach a tentative agreement with Taser International Inc. for cameras and online video storage at the state’s largest law enforcement agency. Ted Davis, president and CEO of Utility Associates, Inc., filed a formal protest this week saying Taser’s initial bid of $4.7 million should have been disqualified last year because it did not meet the city’s requirements spelled out in a request for proposals. Chief among Davis’ allegations is that Taser low-balled its initial bid by not including specific prices for cameras and other required equipment — a claim reviewed by a New Mexico In Depth using public records related to the RFP. “That should’ve been it,” Davis said in a telephone interview with NMID from his office in Decatur, Ga. “It should’ve been over at that point.”

Utility Associates would have won the contract because it scored second highest behind Taser among the city’s seven-member selection committee.

Legislature passes House bill to restrict solitary confinement

Modest restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s jails and prisons easily passed the state Senate Friday. The House concurred with Senate changes later in the day. House Bill 175 would forbid “restricted housing” — defined as 22 or more consecutive hours in a cell “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction” — for pregnant women in the state’s county jails and prisons and for children in juvenile lock-ups. The measure also would limit how corrections officers and administrators in the state’s 28 county jails and 11 prisons can use the controversial practice on people living with or exhibiting signs of mental illness. Early versions of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, placed a 48-hour cap on solitary for inmates with mental health issues.