U.S. misinformed Congress, public on immigrant release

Posted: Thursday October 23, 2014, 11:03 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

New records contradict the Obama administration's assurances to Congress and the public that the 2,200 people it freed from immigration jails last year to save money had only minor criminal records.

The records, obtained by USA TODAY, show immigration officials released some undocumented immigrants who had faced far more serious criminal charges, including people charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, drug trafficking and homicide.

The release sparked a furor in Congress. Republican lawmakers accused the Obama administration of setting dangerous criminals free. In response, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it had released "low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal records," a claim the administration repeated to the public and to members of Congress.

The new records, including spreadsheets and hundreds of pages of e-mails, offer the most detailed information yet about the people ICE freed as it prepared for steep, across-the-government spending cuts in February 2013. They show that although two-thirds of the people who were freed had no criminal records, several had been arrested or convicted on charges more severe than the administration had disclosed.

Read the rest at


Policeman who shot, killed Detroit man shares his story

Posted: Wednesday September 17, 2014, 1:32 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

Detroit police officer David Krupinski pulled his trigger twice and watched the man crumple face-down onto the driveway, the garden rake he was holding clattering down with him.

What happened after Krupinski pulled the trigger that August afternoon in 2000 on the west side of Detroit is a blur, he said.

What happened in the seconds before is still being disputed.

Almost instantly, the shooting turned Krupinski into the face of a police force already besieged by complaints that its officers were too quick to kill, particularly when white officers encountered black suspects. But Krupinski, who is white, said in his first extended interview about the shooting that he did not learn why this shooting stood out among dozens of others until he turned on his television the next day: The man he had killed, Errol Shaw Sr., 39, was black, armed only with a rake, and was deaf and mute, unable to hear officers' commands.

Killings by police officers are a daily event in the United States; at least 400 are reported to the FBI each year, and the true total is almost certainly far higher. Shaw's death and its aftermath offer a vivid illustration of the damage and confusion that often follow. As officials continue to probe the death of an unarmed black teen that touched off a week of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., it is, if nothing else, a reminder that such shootings can cast very long shadows of anguish, mistrust and second-guessing.

Perhaps the longest of those shadows didn't lift until Monday, when a judge in Detroit agreed to end 11 years of federal oversight of the city's police department. Not long after Krupinski fired those two shots, the city's mayor took the unusual step of asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate his own police force. That probe found an alarming pattern of abuses, including a series of unjustified shootings.

Read the rest at

Federal appeals court arguments

Posted: Tuesday September 16, 2014, 2:35 AM>

Here's my latest side project: Arguments, one-stop shopping for recordings of oral arguments in federal appellate courts.

The site indexes oral arguments from eleven federal appellate courts (the Supreme Court plus the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, D.C. and Federal circuits). The other three circuits (the Second, Tenth and Eleventh) still don't post recordings of oral arguments online, so I can't easily index them. The site lets you play, search and download feeds of recordings.

I've been hacking away at this as a side project for a few weeks. It started because I wanted a feed of arguments from a couple circuits that don't have that functionality on their own website. And I wanted to try a different approach to data harvesting with Python. Things still need some work -- think of this as an alpha release -- but it's finally working well enough that I'm sharing it.

For those who are interested, the back-end code is available on GitHub.

For a million fugitives, freedom starts at county line

Posted: Monday August 11, 2014, 1:31 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

LAS VEGAS — Their arrest warrants pile up by the thousands: One for a man accused of punching his girlfriend in the face. Another for a man who crashed, drunk, into a liquor store. Another for a man charged with killing a teen in a joy ride that went wrong.

But the authorities are not searching for any of those fugitives, and even if they happen to find them, they will not pursue them beyond the county line.

Across the United States, a USA TODAY investigation has found, police routinely allow as many as half of the people wanted for crimes large and small to escape justice simply by venturing a few miles from where they are wanted. In the Las Vegas area alone, police records list more than 408,000 arrest warrants for fugitives who won't be pursued beyond the edges of Clark County.

And although most of the fugitives face minor charges, law enforcement records in Nevada and other states list thousands of fugitives wanted for domestic violence, sexual abuse, manslaughter and repeat drunken driving who can evade arrest simply by traveling a county or two away. In New York, records list six rape suspects police won't pursue beyond a neighboring county.

Police say they have little choice but to let them go. "It really does come down to cost," says Jack Manning, the head of a small police force responsible for tracking down people wanted by Las Vegas' municipal court. He said he could not recall the last time his officers traveled outside Clark County to retrieve a suspect.


Investigation: ATF drug stings targeted minorities

Posted: Monday July 28, 2014, 11:25 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The nation's top gun-enforcement agency overwhelmingly targeted racial and ethnic minorities as it expanded its use of controversial drug sting operations, a USA TODAY investigation shows.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has more than quadrupled its use of those stings during the past decade, quietly making them a central part of its attempts to combat gun crime. The operations are designed to produce long prison sentences for suspects enticed by the promise of pocketing as much as $100,000 for robbing a drug stash house that does not actually exist.

At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings were racial or ethnic minorities, USA TODAY found after reviewing court files and prison records from across the United States. Nearly all were either black or Hispanic. That rate is far higher than among people arrested for big-city violent crimes, or for other federal robbery, drug and gun offenses.

The ATF operations raise particular concerns because they seek to enlist suspected criminals in new crimes rather than merely solving old ones, giving agents and their underworld informants unusually wide latitude to select who will be targeted. In some cases, informants said they identified targets for the stings after simply meeting them on the street.

"There's something very wrong going on here," said University of Chicago law professor Alison Siegler, part of a team of lawyers challenging the ATF's tactics in an Illinois federal court. "The government is creating these crimes and then choosing who it's going to target."


Feds locking up fewer fugitives fleeing serious charges

Posted: Thursday June 12, 2014, 1:22 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Teams of federal agents assigned to track down people on the run from serious criminal charges are locking up thousands of fewer fugitives, even as more local police agencies say they lack the time and money to chase them on their own.

Arrests by those teams, led by the U.S. Marshals Service, have plunged nearly 25% since their peak in 2009, mostly because the Marshals Service narrowed the types of cases its officers can investigate. The result is that agents arrested nearly 24,000 fewer fugitives for state and local crimes last year than they had five years earlier, according to Marshals Service reports.

Those fugitive teams are part of a decade-old attempt by the federal government to help overwhelmed police departments locate felony suspects they couldn't track down by themselves, especially those who flee beyond the reach of local police.


Serious questions surround ATF stings

Posted: Friday May 30, 2014, 11:55 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

Two federal judges have ruled that widely used sting operations designed to ensnare suspects with the promise of a huge payday for robbing an imaginary drug stash house are so "outrageous" that they are also unconstitutional. One judge said the charges were so unfair that he threw them out after three suspects already pleaded guilty.

Each of the men admitted to charges that would put them in prison for seven years or more. But instead of sending them there, U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real declared that federal agents had "created the fictitious crime from whole cloth" and that their conduct was unconstitutional. Then he dismissed the charges and ordered that all three be set free.

Real's unusual decision this month is the latest and most pointed indication yet of a growing backlash against undercover operations that have become a central part of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' efforts to target violent crime. Until now, federal courts have largely signed off on the practice, if not always enthusiastically. As the stings proliferate across the United States, an increasing number of judges are offering new resistance to the government's tactics.

"Judges are getting really frustrated with not hng sufficient answers on how these people were targeted or how they came to be the subject of the sting," said Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who has studied government stings. "There's a real discomfort that we're turning people into more serious criminals."


Return of suspect in $2.8M gold heist blocked

Posted: Friday May 30, 2014, 11:54 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

A fugitive charged with pulling off a $2.8 million gold heist could soon be set free because U.S. immigration officials have blocked attempts to return him to the United States to be put on trial.

Raonel Valdez was arrested two months ago in Belize, capping an international manhunt that spanned four countries. He has been locked up there ever since, awaiting extradition to the United States.

But investigators have so far been unable to bring him back because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has told police it will not allow Valdez, a Cuban national, to enter this country, which is a necessary — and usually perfunctory — step in returning a fugitive from overseas, according to law enforcement officials familiar with the case.

That could leave Belizean officials with little choice but to free him.

"It will happen any day," said David Bolton, a private investigator who was among those tracking Valdez. "We searched for this guy in four countries. Letting him go is just going to facilitate more of this kind of crime."


Gun checks miss millions of fugitives

Posted: Friday April 25, 2014, 11:39 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- Millions of fugitives can pass undetected through federal background checks and buy guns illegally because police departments across the country routinely fail to put their names into a national database that tracks people on the run from the law.

Those background checks, conducted by the FBI, are designed to block fugitives, felons, the mentally ill and others who might be violent from buying firearms. They automatically bar sales to anyone identified in federal records as having an outstanding arrest warrant, even if it is for a minor crime.

Yet despite years of attempts to shore up the government's National Instant Background Check System, enormous gaps remain, particularly when it comes to identifying fugitives. In five states alone, law enforcement agencies failed to provide information to the FBI about at least 2.5 million outstanding arrest warrants, police and court records show. Among them are tens of thousands of people wanted for violent offenses and other felonies.

"I remember when I bought my first gun thinking that I could have had a felony warrant for murder and they wouldn't have known," said Kevin Collins, who supervises Michigan's fugitive database for the state police.


Federal judge blasts ATF stings

Posted: Sunday March 23, 2014, 9:22 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

A federal judge in Los Angeles blasted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for sting operations that he said unfairly enlist people in a "made-up crime" by offering them a huge payday for robbing a non-existent drug stash house.

Declaring those tactics "outrageous" and unconstitutional, U.S. District Court Judge Otis Wright took the unusual step last week of throwing out charges against a man arrested by ATF agents after one such sting.

"Society does not win when the Government stoops to the same level as the defendants it seeks to prosecute — especially when the Government has acted solely to achieve a conviction for a made-up crime," Wright wrote. He said the stings have done little to deter crime and instead are "ensnaring chronically unemployed individuals from poverty-ridden areas."

The ATF has quietly made those fictional stash-house robbery cases a central feature of its efforts to target violent criminals, more than quadrupling the number of stings it conducted over the past decade. Although the stings are meant to target some of the nation's most dangerous criminals, a USA TODAY investigation last year found they routinely ensnare small-time crooks who jump at the chance to score a small fortune from a few hours of work.

"The time has come to remind the Executive Branch that the Constitution charges it with law enforcement — not crime creation. A reverse-sting operation like this one transcends the bounds of due process and makes the Government the oppressor of its people," Wright wrote in a scathing 24-page order.