Woman arrested in ATF sting pleads guilty for reduced sentence

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Courtesy Jennifer Padilla

Jennifer Padilla, shown in spring 2016.

Jennifer Padilla has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute meth in return for a two-year federal prison sentence.

If a federal judge accepts the plea deal, the 39-year-old mother of five could be free in less than a year because of the 13 months she’s already spent in the Santa Fe County jail.

Friday’s proposed sentence represents a significant reduction from the 10 or more years Padilla was facing behind bars.

The plea agreement, negotiated between Padilla’s Santa Fe-based lawyer, L. Val Whitley, and federal prosecutors, came less than two months after Padilla alleged misconduct by a confidential informant in a 2016 operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter detailed Padilla’s allegations last month in a story that included her claims of entrapment and “outrageous government conduct” — two legal arguments Whitley made in a pair of court motions in late July. The informant convinced her that he was her boyfriend, even having sex with her at the government-funded halfway house where she was living after heroin addiction led to a string of burglaries and 15 months in state prison, Padilla said. He spent time with her children, too, all the while keeping his government work a secret.

Padilla is not backing off her allegations, Whitley said, although as a condition of the plea agreement she has withdrawn the court motions.

“She truly feels that she was entrapped, and we stand by the facts in our motions,” Whitley said. “But she made a personal decision to take out some of the uncertainty of going to trial.”

In Friday’s appearance before federal magistrate Judge Laura Fashing, Padilla appeared to evince some of the mixed feelings Whitley described.

Wearing a florescent green prison jumpsuit and five-point shackles in court, Padilla answered Fashing’s questions for nearly 30 minutes.

To a handful Padilla answered “No, ma’am” — had she been forced to take the plea; was she under the influence of drugs or alcohol; and similar questions.

Most of the time, however, Padilla replied “Yes, ma’am” in rapid-fire succession to 47 questions.

Only when Fashing asked if Padilla “knowingly and willingly participated” in the conspiracy to sell meth did Padilla pause.

She rocked back and forth, stiffened up, and then answered: “Yes.”

Asked whether prosecutors had offered Padilla a plea deal prior to the court motions and news story, Whitley said in an interview after the hearing: “There had been some discussions, but nothing concrete, and certainly nothing as favorable to my client as what we have now.”

Whitley believes the court motions and the story published last month led to the offer of substantially less prison time, he said.

A nationally recognized legal expert who reviewed aspects of the case agreed.

Concerns that are made public about confidential informants and their behavior can have a “gravitational pull” on the outcomes of cases, including plea negotiations, said Alexandra Natapoff, a former federal public defender.

Natapoff, a professor at the University of California at Irvine law school, is a nationally recognized expert on confidential informants.

“If things go bad, or the informant can’t be called as a witness for whatever reason, or the government learns something new about their snitch, cases often fall apart,” Natapoff said. “There’s no good data on how many cases rely on informants, so we don’t know how often that happens, but we do know that it happens.”

That said, Natapoff added, 95 percent of cases in the federal system are resolved through pleas rather than trials. And there are numerous factors that can impact plea deals.

“We may never know why that deal was offered in this case,” she said. “But this is an example where external forces related to the informant — media attention, defense motions — appear to have changed the negotiations for prosecutors.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond to questions or requests for comment following Friday’s hearing.

But Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the office, issued a news release touting Padilla as the 77th person in the sting to plead guilty. The operation netted 103 arrests and federal officials praised it as a success in taking the “worst of the worst” off Albuquerque’s crime-ridden streets.

A multipart NMID investigation has called some of the government’s claims about the operation  — and its tactics — into question.

Like many swept up in the sting, Padilla did not have the sort of lengthy, violent criminal history officials have said they used as a prerequisite for targeting people. Nor was she moving large quantities of guns and drugs in the city.

A review of hundreds of federal court documents also showed the ATF arrested a highly disproportionate number of black people in the sting. Hispanics also were overrepresented among those arrested, while whites were heavily underrepresented.

Those findings have drawn scrutiny from a federal judge, as well as outrage and calls for reform in policing methods from Albuquerque’s black community and a resolution from a city councilor demanding a rebuke of the ATF and a congressional investigation.

Padilla contended in the court motions, and in interviews,  that only after she and the informant were in what she believed to be a relationship did he pressure her to call old acquaintances and set up drug deals.

NMID and SFR independently verified some, but not all of Padilla’s claims.

Padilla’s prison term, had she been convicted at trial, would have been between 11 and 17 years depending on how federal sentencing guidelines were calculated, Whitley said. In part, her sentence would have been based on her past criminal record — which includes a felony drug possession conviction — and the amount of meth involved in the two sales.

In negotiating the plea agreement, prosecutors abandoned most of those requirements and agreed to consider Padilla’s limited role in the drug transactions: She never touched the meth and was not present when her acquaintances made sales to undercover ATF agents.

She was arrested Aug. 10, 2016 and has been incarcerated at the Santa Fe county jail since.

U.S. District Judge William P. “Chip” Johnson must accept the deal and the prescribed 24-month sentence or reject it entirely. A hearing is expected in the next two months.

If Johnson rejects the agreement, Whitley said Padilla likely would withdraw her guilty plea and he would refile the motion to dismiss her case.

“We had people who initially corroborated Jennifer’s account who, for various reasons, were not able to come forward to testify,” Whitley said. “That would’ve strengthened our position, for sure. Still, the government would have to respond to our claims and put their informant on the stand. We assume he would have denied everything, but she stands by her story and it is very compelling.”

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