The DEA has constructed a massive wiretapping operation in the Los Angeles suburbs, which secretly intercepts tens of thousands of Americans’ phone calls and texts in order to monitor drug traffickers across the U.S. This goes on despite the objections of the Justice Department’s attorneys who think the practice may not be legal. This could mean more than 300 arrests could be tossed.
Interestingly, the large majority of that surveillance was authorized by just one state court judge in Riverside County. The court OK’d nearly five times as many wiretaps as any other judge in the country. These orders allowed investigators — usually from the DEA — to intercept more than 2 million conversations involving 44,000 people. The eavesdropping is designed to disrupt and deter drug rings that have turned Los Angeles’ eastern suburbs into what the DEA says is the nation’s busiest shipping corridor for heroin and methamphetamine. Although the Riverside wiretaps are supposed to be tied to crime within that county, investigators have relied on them to make arrests and seize shipments of cash and drugs from as far away as New York and Virginia, sometimes concealing the surveillance in the process.
This surveillance based on the Riverside orders concerns Justice Department lawyers in Los Angeles, many of whom have refused to use the results in federal court. They fear that the state court’s eavesdropping orders are unlikely to withstand a legal challenge.
“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,” a former Justice Department lawyer said.
Federal agents frequently will seek permission to tap phones from state courts, rather than from federal judges, because the process is typically more efficient and less demanding than going through the Justice Department. In addition, California law allows the agents to better conceal the identities of confidential informants they rely on to help investigate drug rings. Over the past decade, drug agents have more than tripled their use of wiretaps, mostly by using state court orders like the ones from Riverside County.