California Police Used Illegal Wiretap Warrants In Hundreds Of Drug Prosecutions
from the all-aboard-the-suppression-train dept
Earlier this month, Brad Heath and Brett Kelman of USA Today reported that the DEA was running a massive amount of wiretap applications through a single judge in Riverside County, California. Judge Helios Hernandez has signed off on five times as many wiretap warrants as any other judge in the United States.
The DEA, being a federal agency, is supposed to be running its wiretap warrant applications past federal judges, rather than county judges, but has seemingly found itself a very willing participant in its southern California surveillance dragnet.
The DOJ isn’t particularly thrilled with the DEA’s warrant funneling. A handful of unnamed federal proecutors stated the agency had been previously warned that its use of a local court meant there was little chance the DOJ would offer its blessing for prosecution at the federal level. Notably, the DOJ legal staff wasn’t concerned enough about the potential illegality of the DEA’s actions to stop it from routing everything through Hernandez’s courtroom. They were only irritated enough to tell the DEA to keep its tainted evidence out of federal courts.
So, a federal agency has already been exposed as participating in likely illegal activity related to one of the most intrusive surveillance options it has at its disposal. Now, Heath and Kelman are back with more bad news from Riverside. It’s not just the feds. It’s also the locals.
Prosecutors in the Los Angeles suburb responsible for a huge share of the nation’s wiretaps almost certainly violated federal law when they authorized widespread eavesdropping that police used to make more than 300 arrests and seize millions of dollars in cash and drugs throughout the USA.
The violations could undermine the legality of as many as 738 wiretaps approved in Riverside County, Calif., since the middle of 2013, an investigation by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun, based on interviews and court records, has found. Prosecutors reported that those taps, often conducted by federal drug investigators, intercepted phone calls and text messages by more than 52,000 people.
This 4th Amendment-violating joint task force involved local cops, federal agents and a very complicit District Attorney’s office. As Heath and Kelman explain, changes made to federal law in the 1960s (and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1974) as a response to the exposure of the FBI’s secret surveillance of civil rights leaders require the government to obtain authorization from the presiding DA before heading to court with a wiretap warrant request.
However, in Riverside County, home to 20% of the nation’s approved wiretap warrants, this approval process was frequently delegated to the DA’s underlings. Former DA Paul Zellerbach — who presided over the massive increase in Riverside County wiretap applications — rarely performed this task himself.
Despite a federal court ruling that only the district attorney himself should usually approve wiretaps, Zellerbach said in two interviews over the past month that he could not recall having reviewed or personally authorized any of the county’s wiretap applications and said he was unaware of the details of the requests. Instead, he said, he delegated that job to one of his assistants.
“I didn’t have time to review all of those,” Zellerbach said. “No way.”
A 2013 Ninth Circuit Appeals Court decision says Zellerbach (and other DAs) can delegate this authority, but only when the District Attorney isn’t physically available (“absent”) and designates someone to act in their place. For Zellerbach, this exception was the rule. His delegation of the approval process often occurred while he was present in his office, as Heath and Kelman discovered.
[R]ecords show Riverside prosecutors routinely requested wiretaps on days when he was working. Federal court records show prosecutors applied for five wiretaps Feb. 18, 2014, for example, when Zellerbach appeared at a news conference to talk about metal thefts. The next week, prosecutors applied for nine more wiretaps on a day when Zellerbach’s office posted a photo on Twitter of him meeting with a delegation of Chinese officials in his office conference room. In each case, reports by the federal court administrative office list [Assistant DA Jeffrey] Van Wagenen, not Zellerbach, as the person who approved the surveillance.
Not only has the DEA been acquiring wiretap warrants in a way that makes the cases too toxic for the DOJ to pursue in federal court, but the apparently illegality of the District Attorney’s actions should make the cases toxic anywhere. Any evidence obtained directly or indirectly from the wiretaps could easily be suppressed. The fact that so many warrants lead back to a single judge and a single DA’s office means defendants shouldn’t have too much trouble determining whether this apparently illegal surveillance helped build a case against them.
The DOJ may be unwilling to do anything more than publicly (but anonymously) express its disgruntlement, but at least the district attorney’s office is in new hands. The new DA (Mike Hestrin) has aligned his officer’s wiretap policy with the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling. He has said, however, that he will defend his predecessor’s wiretap orders if they are challenged in court.