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CHICAGO — In a ruling with potentially national consequences, the chief federal judge in Chicago ruled Monday that the controversial drug stash house stings run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are distasteful but "reluctantly" concluded they aren't racially biased against minorities.

"These cases have served to undermine legitimate law enforcement efforts in this country," U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said from the bench. "It is time for these false stash house cases to end and be relegated to the dark corridors of our past."

The first-of-its-kind ruling comes three months after Castillo and eight other district judges held a landmark hearing over the issue of whether the ATF stings unfairly targeted blacks and Hispanics.

The other judges are expected to issue opinions of their own in coming weeks, and any significant differences among the rulings are expected to lead to further litigation on appeal.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have offered plea deals to all 43 men charged in the 13 Chicago-area stings — an about-face that came after several judges were critical of the U.S. Attorney's Office's handling of the cases.

Castillo, a former civil rights attorney and the first Hispanic chief judge in the Northern District of Illinois, has long hinted at his displeasure over the tactics used in the stings, a staple of the ATF since the mid-1990s that has ensnared hundreds of defendants across the country with the promise of a big score. In reality, the stash houses — as well as the drugs, cash and armed guards purportedly inside — were dreamed up by agents.

Defense attorneys argue the stings overwhelmingly targeted blacks and Latinos. The prosecutions have also been criticized because agents can arbitrarily jack up the charges by increasing the amount of fake drugs the defendants are purportedly trying to rob — a move that can lead to stiff sentences of up to life behind bars.

Castillo himself got the ball rolling on the litigation over alleged racial disparities nearly five years ago when he ordered prosecutors to turn over evidence about the racial makeup of the stash house defendants.

After the joint hearing in December, yet another legal battle began brewing over documents that lawyers for the defendants argued should have been turned over but were withheld by the government. The latest round of litigation clearly frustrated some of the judges, including Castillo, who in recent weeks have urged the U.S. Attorney's Office to rethink its approach to the prosecutions.

At a hearing on one of the cases in January, Castillo told prosecutors they should focus on resolving each case fairly rather than continuing to fight the issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This isn't about winning cases," Castillo said. "It's about doing justice. Some of these defendants have already served a lot of time. The government needs to think about that and needs to think about it very, very seriously."

Castillo also said that "fairness" seemed to have gotten lost in the process.

"What about fairness?" the judge said. "Somebody needs to think about that. This is not about winning this case because I think no matter what happens in this case, I don't see any real winners. I just don't."


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