An investigation by the U.S. Marine Corps of a raid it conducted on the offices of defense lawyers representing soldiers at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County has found no harm, no foul.
It remains to be seen if a judge will see it that way.
The raid took place on May 2 when military investigators conducted a two-and-a-half-hour search of the Marine Corps Defense Services Organization looking for a cellphone alleged to have been used in a case involving drugs and gangs. The organization represents more than 1,100 Marines annually at courts-martial and administrative hearings.
A lawyer had offered to produce the cellphone if investigators would get a judge to sign off on a warrant, but the Marines opted to conduct the raid without that complication. A prosecutor showed up at defense attorney offices with four armed Marine Corps Criminal Investigation Division agents, according to McClatchy news service, with a warrant signed only by a local commander.
They went office by office, looking through drawers and shuffling through papers, until they found the cellphone—about 20 minutes into the search. They didn’t stop. Defense lawyers, who represent a number of clients in criminal cases, were prevented from leaving the premises.
The search potentially contaminated a number of cases. The Camp Pendleton office has about 70 cases pending, including one involving Iraq war crimes. “Every citizen knows that attorney-client communications cannot be invaded by the government,” military law expert Gary Solis told U-T San Diego. “That alone makes this such a unique and unusual event. What magnifies the issues involved are that so many cases are now affected.”
When the lawyers raised a stink about the raid, base commander Brigadier General John Bullard appointed a judge advocate to check out their complaints. Those findings became known at an unrelated hearing Thursday—at least, it’s unrelated for now—when the attorney for a defendant in a base hazing case asked the judge to throw it out, according to the Associated Press.
Lance Corporal Eric Salinas argued that his client couldn’t receive a fair trial not knowing whether the raiders had seen privileged communications between them. In response, military investigator Sergeant Lisa Brandt testified on behalf of the judge advocate that no attorney-client privileged information was compromised. Absolutely none. No way.
“We didn't read any text or anything,” she told Judge Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Harvey. “When you're searching, you're not savvy enough to read something. You're shuffling papers.”
Lieutenant Colonel Clay Plummer, the Corps’ regional defense counsel for the West Coast, told McClatchy he wasn’t buying that explanation.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said. “We’re going to litigate this, to make sure this never happens again.”