Back in July, this blog discussed a disastrous attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to track down Mexican drug cartel leaders. They let 2,000 guns be smuggled across the border, thinking that they could keep track of each one, only to lose most of them and be indirectly responsible for 150 murders, including a Border Patrol agent’s. Now the ATF is trying to redeem itself with a new leader, B. Todd Jones. Jones is a former U.S. Marine who once commanded a military police unit. His goal is to get the ATF to focus back on stopping violent crime, rather than the two big federal investigations taking place in Washington under the watchful eye of House Republican Darrell Issa.
The ATF’s general mission is to prevent illegal use of firearms and explosives, and the smuggling of alcohol and tobacco products. It is one of many active federal agencies along the U.S.-Mexico border, sometimes involved in house and vehicle searches and seizures that are possibly illegal. While many of its aims are worthy ones (such as stopping violent crime), it has a somewhat checkered history. Besides the total failure that was its “Fast and Furious” program, the ATF was also part of the tragedy at Waco, Texas in 1993, when agents held a 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidian sect, ending with a fire that killed 76 people. At the same time, it is hard to fault the ATF for trying to regulate firearms, which are so numerous and unregulated that even Al Qaeda instructed its members to go purchase weapons at gun shows.
It is too early to know what to expect of B. Todd Jones’s leadership. It certainly can’t be any worse than his predecessors’. Even now, crimes continue to be committed with weapons connected to the “Fast and Furious” program — the most recent in Arizona, where a Mexican national committed aggravated assault on a police officer. If Jones succeeds in cleaning up the ATF, it would be a good thing for all of us. However, it would be even better if he could do it without violating people’s rights. The temptation is there: the ATF needs to look responsible, find the missing weapons, and prevent catastrophes like “Fast and Furious” from ever happening again. So they become even more aggressive with their searches, leave no stone unturned and no house or car unexplored — even if that means entering stopping a car without reasonable suspicion, searching a house without an adequate search warrant, and questioning suspects without first informing them of their Miranda rights. With his military background and history cleaning up the Minnesota District Attorney’s office, Jones sounds tough, but is he tough enough to stand up to potential abuses?
Criminal defense attorneys in Texas and other border states see too many cases where criminal suspects must answer charges based on evidence that the police gained illegally. A skilled criminal defense attorney can do his best to get illegally obtained evidence suppressed, but it is always better when we don’t have to.