Pubdate: Thu, 24 Mar 2016
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2016 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Brad Heath


The Justice Department offered its first defense this week of a 
once-vast eavesdropping program carried out by drug agents in the Los 
Angeles suburbs over the objection of government lawyers who feared 
it was illegal.

The Justice Department urged a judge not to throw out wiretaps agents 
used to arrest an accused marijuana trafficker, saying the 
surveillance was "authorized in accordance with state and federal 
law." That defense came in a filing Monday in federal court in Louisville.

The Kentucky case is the first major challenge to a surveillance 
program by the Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors in 
Riverside County, Calif., so large that it once accounted for nearly 
a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps.

The challenge follows an investigation last year by USA TODAY and The 
Desert Sun that found the DEA and prosecutors in Riverside County, 
outside Los Angeles, constructed a vast and legally questionable 
wiretapping operation that secretly intercepted millions of calls and 
text messages with the approval of a single state court judge. 
Justice Department lawyers refused to use the results in federal 
court because they did not think the surveillance could withstand a 
legal challenge.

Federal law bars the government from seeking court approval for a 
wiretap unless a top prosecutor has personally signed off on that 
request. The only exception is when the district attorney is "absent" 
and has authorized someone else to act in his place.

Riverside County's former district attorney, Paul Zellerbach, has 
acknowledged that he allowed lower-level lawyers to do that job.

Rather than defend that practice, the Justice Department argued 
Monday that defense lawyers had failed to prove that Zellerbach was 
working on the days his subordinates approved the wiretaps 
prosecutors hope to use.

However, the government's filing included copies of a calendar kept 
by Zellerbach's assistant, and most of it suggests he was at work on 
the days the wiretaps were approved.
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