Federal drug agents have widely used wiretaps in the Los Angeles area over the past several years to intercept tens of thousands of text messages and phone calls in order to monitor drug traffickers across the country. However, attorneys with the U.S. Justice Department sometimes object to the use of evidence recovered from these wiretaps for fear that a federal court will determine the wiretaps illegal.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) request the most warrants for wiretaps and federal records show that over two million conversations involving 44,000 people were intercepted in 2014.
The eavesdropping is focused on tearing down the drug rings that infiltrate Riverside County and the Los Angeles area, making it the country’s busiest and most active shipping hub for methamphetamine and heroin.
And, while the wiretaps sniff out tons of drugs and illegal activities, Justice Department lawyers have concerns. So much so that many refuse to use the wiretap results in federal court because the evidence is unlikely to withstand a legal challenge.
A former Justice Department lawyer pointed out that, “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.”
Federal agents often go to state courts rather than federal courts when seeking permission to use a wiretaps because state courts generally process the request faster and are less demanding. By doing so, some critics claim agents are bypassing federal court and therefore the federal standard for obtaining permission to conduct a wiretap.
Wiretaps are very intrusive and federal law imposes strict guidelines and limits on when and how wiretaps can be used. Essentially, agents may use wiretaps only after they have run out of other options in order to build a case.
When referring to the large number of wiretaps used in the L.A. area, Dave Maass, an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation stated that, “Those numbers – the totals, and just the size of some of those wiretaps – are huge red flags for us. When there’s this amount of secrecy it starts to raise serious concerns about accountability for electronic interceptions.”
Mike Hestrin, Riverside County’s new district attorney, said that he has now made a “series of reforms” to how wiretaps are handled and to the numbers requested.
Hestrin added that his prosecutors “follow the law to the letter” when requesting wiretaps.
The wiretaps are used in the Riverside area surrounding Los Angeles to identify and seize hundreds millions of dollars in cash and hundreds of pounds of drugs. The taps have allowed agents to pinpoint the locations of smuggling tunnels dug beneath the U.S. – Mexican border and piece together the inner workings of South American drug trafficking operations.
So, while many federal prosecutors choose not to prosecute the individuals caught by wiretap of illegal activities, the wiretaps have resulted in stopping and seizing shipments of cash and drugs throughout the United States.