Justice officials fear nation’s biggest wiretap operation may not be legal

illegal wiretaps

Federal drug agents have built a massive wiretapping operation in the Los Angeles suburbs, secretly intercepting tens of thousands of Americans’ phone calls and text messages to monitor drug traffickers across the United States despite objections from Justice Department lawyers who fear the practice may not be legal.

Nearly all of that surveillance was authorized by a single state court judge in Riverside County, who last year signed off on almost five times as many wiretaps as any other judge in the United States. The judge’s orders allowed investigators — usually from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — to intercept more than 2 million conversations involving 44,000 people

The eavesdropping is aimed at dismantling the drug rings that have turned Los Angeles’ eastern suburbs into what the DEA says is the nation’s busiest shipping corridor for heroin and methamphetamine. Riverside wiretaps are supposed to be tied to crime within the county, but investigators have relied on them to make arrests and seize shipments of cash and drugs as far away as New York and Virginia, sometimes concealing the surveillance in the process.

The surveillance has raised concerns among Justice Department lawyers in Los Angeles, who have mostly refused to use the results in federal court because they have concluded the state court’s eavesdropping orders are unlikely to withstand a legal challenge, current and former Justice officials said.

“It was made very clear to the agents that if you’re going to go the state route, then best wishes, good luck and all that, but that case isn’t coming to federal court,” a former Justice Department lawyer said. The lawyer and other officials described the situation on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the department’s internal deliberations…

The old “my hands are clean” defense.

Wiretaps — which allow the police to secretly monitor Americans’ communications — are among the most intrusive types of searches the police can conduct, and federal law imposes strict limits on when and how they can be used. The law requires that police use wiretaps only after they have run out of other tools to build a case.

In Riverside, the authorities’ use of that last-ditch tool quadrupled over the past four years. Last year alone, Riverside County prosecutors and a local judge approved 624 wiretaps…

Former county DA, Paul Zellerbach said the taps yielded significant arrests and seizures. And they paid other dividends. “We liked it because in these difficult economic times, my budget was being cut, and that was a way to somewhat supplement funding for my office…”

But if the taps also produce arrests, they are difficult to find.

Prosecutors seldom make use of state-court wiretaps in the federal courts around Los Angeles. And defense lawyers in Riverside said they only rarely encounter cases with disclosed wiretaps in state court. The county’s public defenders handle 40,000 criminal cases a year; no more than five involve disclosed wiretaps, said Steve Harmon, the head of that office.

In most businesses these practices would fall under the heading of corruption and fraud. Because there are DEA agents, local coppers involved, all our Constitution gets is a wink-and-a-nod. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU are cranking up their efforts to reintroduce legitimate procedures to the policing bodies concerned. That they must do so is further evidence of just how low a priority integrity has become in American justice.

RTFA for beaucoup details, examples of corruption that passes for executive creativity in the Riverside County justice system.

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