RIVERSIDE, Calif. — 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.
Federal law bars the government from seeking court approval for a wiretap unless a top prosecutor has personally authorized the request. Congress added that restriction in the 1960s, when the FBI had secretly monitored civil rights leaders, to ensure that such intrusive surveillance would not be conducted lightly.
In Riverside County — a Los Angeles suburb whose court and prosecutors approved almost one of every five U.S. wiretaps last year — the district attorney turned the job of reviewing the applications over to lower-level lawyers, interviews and court records show. That practice almost certainly violated the federal wiretapping law and could jeopardize prosecutors’ ability to use the surveillance in court.
“A district attorney is playing with gunpowder if he ignores the potential implications of letting somebody else handle the entire process. That’s potentially catastrophic,” said Clifford Fishman, a Catholic University of America law professor who studies wiretapping.
That also creates a legal problem for Riverside’s massive wiretapping operation, which had come under scrutiny from Justice Department lawyers. Last week, USA TODAY and The Desert Sun reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had secretly helped turn the county into the nation’s wiretap capital, even though federal prosecutors repeatedly warned that the surveillance orders violated a separate part of the wiretapping law and would not withstand a legal challenge.
Federal drug agents used information from Riverside wiretaps to make arrests as far away as Kentucky and Virginia, sometimes concealing the surveillance from judges and defense lawyers.
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