Undercover law enforcement officers are often placed in dangerous situations with unpredictable people, but it’s hard to imagine an officer waking up expecting to be a victim of an armed robbery during work. This is exactly what happened recently in Baltimore, as two undercover ATF agents sought to make a controlled narcotics purchase and instead ended up looking down the barrel of a .44 caliber revolver. The evening began with the two agents and a confidential informant arranging to purchase $2,000 worth of heroin from a known dealer. The agents and the CI picked up the known dealer and then traveled to meet to meet the dealer’s supplier in West Baltimore. Upon arriving the dealer exited the car and told the other three occupants to say put. As soon as the dealer was out of sight two suspicious men approached the car brandishing handguns and demanding money. The undercovers told the men there was cash in the car, and during this brief exchange a secret takedown signal was relayed to a team of covert backup agents.
The supporting ATF agents stormed on scene and ordered the two robbers to drop their weapons and put their hands in the air, but instead they both took off running. After a quick pursuit both suspects were placed in custody, though one was actually shot by the ATF as he attempted to flea. Only one of the guns was recovered, but as part of the plea agreement both men admitted that there were two guns involved in the attempted robbery. The latest defendant to plea guilty was convicted of assault on a federal officer and brandishing a firearm in the course of a crime of violence. This 33-year old defendant faces between 7 and 15 years in federal prison followed by supervised release. The second defendant entered his plea the week before, and both are scheduled to be sentenced in March in the Baltimore federal courthouse.
Although both defendants admitted they had no idea their victims were federal agents, there is no element of knowledge for the crime of assault on a federal law enforcement officer in the U.S. code. The government is only required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was in fact a federal officer acting in the course of his or her duties. This is different than some jurisdictions that require that the defendant knew or should have known the victim was a law enforcement officer. Law enforcement officers are generally afforded an additional layer of protection against assault through enhanced penalties, and the federal system is no exception. While simple assault on a federal agent is punishable by 1 year in prison, if the assault took place during the course of a felony the maximum becomes 8 years. There is no element of injury required for this offense, so in this case an attempted robbery with no actual physical contact was more than enough to satisfy the elements of the crime.