Prosecutors halt vast, likely illegal DEA wiretap operation

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Riverside County, Calif. once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps. Prosecutors now say they have dramatically scaled back that eavesdropping, which the Justice Department feared was illegal.

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USA TODAY’s Brad Heath discusses Riverside County, California wiretipes once nation’s highest dropped considerably in 2015.

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Prosecutors in a Los Angeles suburb say they have dramatically scaled back a vast and legally questionable eavesdropping operation, built by federal drug agents, that once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps.

The wiretapping, authorized by prosecutors and a single state-court judge in Riverside County, alarmed privacy advocates and even some U.S. Justice Department lawyers, who warned that it was likely illegal. An investigation last year by The Desert Sun and USA TODAY found that the operation almost certainly violated federal wiretapping laws while using millions of secretly intercepted calls and texts to make hundreds of arrests nationwide.

Riverside’s district attorney, Mike Hestrin, acknowledged being concerned by the scope of that surveillance, and said he enacted “significant” reforms last summer to rein it in. Wiretap figures his office released this week offer the first evidence that the enormous eavesdropping program has wound down to more routine levels.

“I definitely don’t apologize for using this tool to hit the cartels in Riverside County,” said Hestrin, who took office last year. “I think the reforms I put in place were necessary, but this is still a tool that I believe in. It needs to be used cautiously, but it should be available when necessary.”

The number of wiretaps authorized in Riverside County started to climb in 2010; it quadrupled by 2014, when the county court approved 624 wiretaps — three times as many as any other state or federal court. Most of the surveillance was conducted at the behest of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who used the eavesdropping to make arrests and seize drugs and cash as far away as New York and Virginia.

Officials approved another 607 wiretaps in 2015, according to the figures released by the district attorney’s office. Most were approved in the first half of the year, before Hestrin said he installed a “stricter” standard that required every new wiretap application to have a “strong investigatory nexus” to Riverside County.

Taps have dwindled since then. So far this year, Hestrin has approved only 14. In the first two months of last year, his office approved 126.

If the current rate continues, Riverside County will end 2016 with about between 85 and 120 wiretaps — still enough to rank it among the nation’s busiest wiretapping jurisdictions, based on 2014 records. But the county will no longer be in a stratosphere all its own.

“I’m pleased to hear this, but it never should have gotten out of hand in the first place,” said Steve Harmon, the Riverside County Public Defender. “If there is no strong investigative connection to Riverside County, then Riverside County has no interest being in this business.”

Privacy advocates, who had expressed alarm in the past, were more cautious.

Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it was “reassuring” the Riverside wiretap numbers had normalized, but worried there is “no oversight” even for new eavesdropping orders. Almost all wiretaps are sealed, and are sometimes kept secret even from the suspects who are arrested as a result of the eavesdropping, Lynch said.

“We are reliant on the prosecutors and the law enforcement officers to do their jobs and the judges not to just stamp a signature on them, but without releasing these on a regular basis it’s hard to be satisfied that the system is operating the way it should be,” Lynch said.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the abrupt drop in eavesdropping. In the past, DEA officials had said the surveillance was an important tool for targeting cartels that  had turned the suburbs around Riverside into one of the nation’s busiest drug trafficking corridors.

The majority of Riverside’s wiretap surge occurred under the watch of former District Attorney Paul Zellerbach, a one-term top prosecutor who was ousted by Hestrin at the end of 2014.

In interviews last fall, Zellerbach said his staff was “efficient and effective” at processing wiretaps. As word spread through law enforcement circles, the office received more and more requests to eavesdrop. Zellerbach had no qualms about leading the nation in taps. “I thought we were doing a hell of a job,” Zellerbach said in November.

Others did not share that opinion. Justice Department lawyers warned the DEA in private that the wiretaps were unlikely to withstand a legal challenge, and they generally refused to use them as evidence in federal court.