DEA Loses Big Drug Case, Thanks To Illegal Wiretap Warrants Prosecutor Calls 'Procedural Errors'
from the self-inflicted-wounds-all-someone-else's-fault dept
The DOJ's counsel warned the DEA that its illegal wiretaps would get them into trouble.
"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..."But the DEA persisted, because it had a man [read: magistrate judge] on the inside. Judge Helios Hernandez, a state-level judge, approved five times as many wiretap warrants as any other judge in the country, acting as a rubber stamp for the DEA and the California law enforcement agencies it collaborated with. The DEA should have been running these warrant applications through a federal judge, but it seemed much happier with this arrangement.
"They'd want to bring these cases into the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the feds would tell them no (expletive) way," a former Justice Department official said.
The highly-questionable wiretap warrants have finally started to cause it problems. Brad Heath and Brett Kelman of USA Today -- the journalists who uncovered the massive, illegal wiretap program -- are now reporting that one of the faulty warrants has just cost the DEA a year's worth of surveillance efforts and, quite possibly, a significant amount of seized assets.
Federal drug agents spent months watching a tiny California jewelry store sandwiched between an auto parts shop and an apartment house with bars on its windows. They secretly recorded its owner’s phone calls and intercepted couriers carrying away boxes full of cash, sometimes stuffed with $100,000 or more. For more than a year, they gathered evidence that the store was laundering millions of dollars for drug traffickers.The problem with the warrants used in this case were numerous. First, many of the suspects were prosecuted in San Bernardino while the wiretap warrants themselves were issued by the friendly courts in Riverside. On top of that, the warrants -- which were supposed to be signed only by a top prosecutor -- were signed by lower-level lawyers. This practice ran afoul of a restriction enacted in response to the FBI's abuse of wiretaps to surveil civil rights leaders in the 1960s.
Prosecutors determined that wiretaps the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used as the core of its investigation were illegal and couldn’t be used in court. Four suspects went free, and they want the government to give back nearly $800,000 drug agents seized.
Because Riverside District Attorney Paul Zellerbach rarely felt the need to comply with this restriction, hundreds of granted warrants are equally suspect. More cases are likely to be tossed in the future. Defense lawyers as far away as Kentucky and Oregon (where Riverside-granted warrants were deployed) are taking a closer look at the government's paperwork.
The most ridiculous reaction has come from the head of the office that just saw all of its evidence tossed. According to San Bernardino's top prosecutor, illegal wiretap warrants are no big deal -- certainly not worthy of having a yearlong investigation nullified.
“These people were dealing in drugs, and they are guilty, and because of a procedural issue and a suppression motion, they got away with it,” said Mike Ramos, the district attorney in San Bernardino, Calif., whose office prosecuted the case.Man, those "getting away with it" grapes look incredibly sour. For many years, it has been the DEA and local law enforcement "getting away with it." These "procedural errors" never seemed to concern the agencies that used illegally obtained evidence to put people in prison. It's not until one gets away that anyone expresses an opinion on hundreds of illegal wiretap warrants. And the statement that's delivered isn't one of regret or contrition, but one of resentment that "guilty" people can also benefit from "procedural errors."