In order for evidence to be used in court, the legal tradition held that it needed to be obtained legally. This would include wiretapping evidence. When law enforcement eavesdrops on phone conversations, text messages, emails, and other types of communication without the proper authorization, the resulting evidence is inadmissible in court; or at least it should be.
Last year, a massive wiretapping operation was uncovered in Riverside, California. DEA agents had been intercepting thousands of telephone communications as part of a large-scale drug investigation, which was not limited to California.
Federal drug agents are used to seeking state, rather than federal approval, for surveillance operations because the process is usually much faster in state courts. Regulations establish that the District Attorney himself must authorize these types of requests. However, in the case of Riverside County, an investigation revealed that the majority of wiretapping requests had been signed off by a subordinate.
When confronted with the fact that his district had authorized an unusually large number of wiretappings, former Riverside District Attorney, Paul Zellerbach, claimed that he had not been available to review requests in most cases and former Assistant District Attorney Jeff Van Wagenen acknowledged that there was a tacit agreement between the two that it was okay for him to approve requests without even consulting with Zellerbach.
Last August, when Zellerbach failed to show up at a court hearing to explain the situation, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Unsurprisingly, the warrant was never enforced and Zellerbach was merely given another chance to come to court to testify.
In another disappointing if not unsurprising ruling, Superior Court Judge John Molloy ruled that Zellerbach was allowed to delegate approval of wiretap applications to his second-in-command thus leaving intact the convictions for the defendants who were convicted due to the illegally evidence wiretapping that was not properly authorized.
Since the shady wiretapping operations came to light last year, through the warrant for Zellerbach's arrest and the media coverage of Riverside DA's office's irregular activities, those who are naïve about the criminal justice system might have thought that there was a glimpse of hope that justice might prevail in this situation.
But Judge Molloy's ruling can only be seen as another step in the wrong direction. Fortunately, the new Riverside DA, Mike Hestrin, has dramatically reduced the number of approved wiretaps, which he has a habit of reviewing personally.
As I explain at length in my upcoming book, “California: State of Collusion,” the system is corrupt at heart. Prosecutors are seldom concerned with defendants' civil liberties and appropriate procedures for obtaining evidence. The ruling in favor of the Riverside County DA is yet another blow to justice, and a piece of discouraging news for those among us who believe that every American suspected of a crime deserves a fair trial.