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Gov't Intercepted Millions Of Conversations In Single Drug Investigation, Netted Zero Convictions

The most intrusive of your tax dollars hard at work:

US authorities intercepted and recorded millions of phone calls last year under a single wiretap order, authorized as part of a narcotics investigation.

The wiretap order authorized an unknown government agency to carry out real-time intercepts of 3.29 million cell phone conversations over a two-month period at some point during 2016, after the order was applied for in late 2015.

This detail, contained in the US Courts' latest wiretap report, shows how much the government can get with a single wiretap order. Using assertions of "training and expertise," US drug warriors intercepted millions of phone calls, ringing up a $335,000 third-party phone bill in the process.

But hey, the Drug War can't be won without casting a wide dragnet. Drug conspiracies are vast and far-reaching, often leading law enforcement to bigger fish further down the line. Or so the affidavit assertions say…

But the authorities noted that the surveillance effort led to no incriminating intercepts, and none of the handful of those arrested have been brought to trial or convicted.

To recap:

1 wiretap warrant

$335,000 spent

3.3 million communications intercepted

0 convictions

The statutes governing wiretap warrants designate they should only be used when all other, less-intrusive investigative methods have failed. The fact that these 3.3 million communications failed to add up to a single conviction suggests other investigative methods weren't fully explored before a judge autographed this warrant request. To be fair to the judge, the requesting agency probably wasn't forthcoming about its previous investigative ventures.

But that's enough being fair to judges: Marcy Wheeler notes courts approving wiretap orders are even more of a rubberstamp than the FISA court.

The FISC report showed that that court denied in full 8 of 1485 individual US based applications, at a rate of .5%, along with partially denying or modifying a significant number of others.

The Article III report showed that out of 3170 requests, state and federal courts denied just 2 requests.


That’s a denial rate of .06%.

If there's good news to be gleaned from this report, it's that the number of wiretap orders obtained has dropped dramatically over the last year.

A total of 3,168 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2016, compared with 4,148 the previous year. Of those, 1,551 were authorized by federal judges, compared with 1,403 in 2015. A total of 1,617 wiretaps were authorized by state judges, compared with 2,745 in 2015.

There's been a slight uptick in federal court approvals, but a dramatic downturn in state court approvals. Most of this drop can likely be linked to 0 being under the direction of a new District Attorney, who has stepped up to curb the wiretap abuses by his predecessor. For several years, the DEA -- which should be running its wiretap requests through federal courts -- was running its wiretap affidavits past an absentee DA and a very compliant (and efficient) state court judge.

Nearly all of that surveillance was authorized by a single state court judge in Riverside County, who last year signed off on almost five times as many wiretaps as any other judge in the United States. The judge's orders allowed investigators — usually from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — to intercept more than 2 million conversations involving 44,000 people, federal court records show.

As USA Today's Brad Heath discovered, state court judge Helios Hernandez was a regular wiretap warrant printing press, which led to the DEA funneling a great deal of its requests through his courtroom.

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 [new DA Mike] 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 [2016], Hestrin has approved only 14. In the first two months of last year, his office approved 126.

As Heath's report notes, this single DA's office and single state court judge were once responsible for 20% of the nation's state court-approved wiretaps. This no longer is the case, and the DEA's recent legal troubles associated with these questionable wiretaps has probably pushed it towards seeking more federal judges' signatures last year -- something it should have been doing all along.

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