Riverside County Is Wiretap Capital, but Did It Earn the Title Legally?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Riverside County, the nation’s wiretap capital, appears to have issued hundreds, if not thousands, of law enforcement applications illegally, perhaps jeopardizing the cases associated with them.

The wiretaps are ostensibly aimed at trafficking in heroin and methamphetamine along a popular route through the state, but information from the wiretaps has been used in cases across the country although,  perhaps, not with full disclosure of their origin.

USA Today and the Palm Springs Desert Sun reported last week that former Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach, who left in January, told them that he rarely personally signed off on the slew of wiretap requests from mostly federal agents, sloughing the job off on a subordinate.

“I didn’t have time to review all of those,” Zellerbach told them. “No way.”

That could be a problem because federal law, which applies to the states in this case, clearly requires they be approved by a senior official. In 2013, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a San Bernardino County case that wiretaps needed the district attorney’s approval.

San Bernardino D.A. Mike Ramos said he learned his lesson and has personally signed off on them since. Ramos told the journalists he warned Zellerbach he should do the same. There is no indication Riverside County policy changed.

Wiretap applications and orders are sealed and shielded for the most part from public view. However, USA Today said that documents submitted by the Riverside County D.A.’s office to the feds list an assistant D.A. as the signatory.

A report (pdf) in May from the California Department of Justice (DOJ) said Riverside County had more wiretap applications last year than all 57 of the other counties combined. The county accounted for 64.2% of the issued orders.

Its 624 requests were four times as large as Los Angeles County, four times higher than four years ago. They led to 176 arrests, all but 10 of which were for narcotics.

Only two of the state’s 971 wiretap applications were turned down last year. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Helios Hernandez was responsible for nearly all the approved orders in his county, according to USA Today. He signed off on more than five times as many orders as any judge in the country, which allowed the interception of more than 2 million conversations involving 44,000 people.   

There is some question if federal law enforcement agents would have been as successful at receiving permission if they had used federal courts.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Police Used Apparently Illegal Wiretaps to Make Hundreds of Arrests (by Brad Heath and Brett Kelman, USA Today)

State Judge Gives Wiretaps to Federal Agents (Des Moines Register editorial)

Report Documents California Wiretap Explosion, but Locked File Limits Data Access (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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