Local Superior Court Judge Says DEA's Wiretap Warrant Factory Perfectly Legal

from the Judge-Malloy's-Wiretap-Warrant-Laundry-Service dept

Over the past several years, the DEA has run hundreds of wiretap warrants through a single county judge’s court after getting them approved by whoever happened to be in the local district attorney’s office when agents need one signed. The latter part of this process runs contrary to statutes enacted specifically to prevent abuse of wiretap warrants by the federal agencies.

The approval process, which had been streamlined to eliminate any possible roadblocks to the DEA’s deployment of wiretaps all over the country, was considered by the DOJ to be far enough outside legal boundaries as to make the warrants questionable, if not legally “toxic.”

The district attorney who was supposed to personally approve these wiretap warrants never did. Former Riverside County district attorney Paul Zellerbach delegated this task to anyone but himself. Because of this, some of the warrants have been challenged in court, leading to the DOJ stepping in to salvage wiretaps its lawyers had previously instructed DEA agents to keep out of federal courts.

Not much of this seems to matter now, as another Riverside County judge has just declared the DEA’s wiretap warrants to be perfectly valid.

Superior Court Judge John Molloy ruled that the district attorney was allowed to delegate the responsibility of approving wiretap applications to his second-in-command.

Except that’s not really what happened. Zellerbach, who managed to obtain a warrant of his own by failing to show up for court, never designated any particular person to approve the warrants. As Brett Kelman and Brad Heath reported earlier, Zellerbach himself stated that he delegated this task to “lower level lawyers,” rather than a specific person — contrary to statutes directly stemming from the federal government’s previous abuse of wiretap warrants to surveil civil rights leaders during the 1960s.

Federal law bars the government from seeking court approval for a wiretap unless a top prosecutor has personally signed off on that request.

Zellerbach claimed he had no time to personally approve these wiretap requests. And he probably didn’t, what with the DEA funneling several hundred of these through his office and into the hands of county judge Helios Hernandez (who singlehandedly approved five times as many wiretap warrants as any other judge in the nation).

Judge Molloy, however, likely views this abuse of the system as good police work.

Molloy, a former prosecutor who used to work with wiretap applications, ruled that Zellerbach’s practice of letting his number-two prosecutor sign off on them did not violate state or federal wiretap laws.

Molloy also said that because Zellerbach was away at an education conference in another Southern California town when the specific wiretap defense lawyers were challenging was approved, he would have been allowed to delegate it anyway.

Zellerbach’s second-in-command testified in court that he usually handled wiretap requests, paying no mind to the federal limitation that Zellerbach be actually absent before he had permission to do so.

Under Zellerbach, that person was Van Wagenen. However, on Friday, Van Wagenen testified that he didn’t actually check if Zellerbach was available before he signed hundreds of applications.

“The protocol was that I was to sign the application instead of Mr. Zellerbach,” Van Wagenen said.

“On any occasion?” asked defense attorney Jan Ronis.

“If I was available and in the office, yes,” Van Wagenen answered.

Judge Molloy revisited the questioning minutes later.

‘Did you ever ask Paul Zellerbach to review a wiretap application?” Molloy asked.

“I did not,” Van Wagenen said.

“This is fine” ruled the judge, and at least one warrant — if not dozens of others obtained in the same jurisdiction (which would be a significant percentage of the DEA’s wiretap warrants) — has been given a post facto veneer of lawfulness. This takes some weight off the DOJ’s legal team, which had previously advised the DEA to steer clear of federal prosecutions stemming from questionable warrants. Now, it can just let the highest level local judge’s blessing do its work for it.

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