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There is also bad press. USA Today published a series that exposed ATF home invasion techniques in which undercover agents and informants work to entice suspects to rob fake drug stash houses. Once the suspect agrees to the offer, the report said, law enforcement officers go in for the sting.

A number of federal judges have dismissed the operation, making it harder for agents to persuade U.S. prosecutors to take their cases.

A federal appeals court in Chicago called the stings tawdry and said the operation “seems to be directed at unsophisticated, and perhaps desperate defendants who easily snap at the bait.” This year, a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles said in a ruling that an ATF sting went too far, “ensnaring chronically unemployed individuals from poverty-ridden areas.”

The agency has taken note.

“The cases that are being adopted are the ones that include the littlest amount of risk,” said the current ATF agent. “So it’s disheartening. But I keep telling my line agents not to be discouraged. We need to continue to build the best cases and go after the most violent offenders because eventually, things will change. Yes, we’ve made mistakes, and we’ve taken those on the chin. But we’re still the best when it comes to violent crimes.”