Federal drug agents have built a massive wiretapping operation in the Los Angeles suburbs, secretly intercepting tens of thousands of Americans’ phone calls and text messages to monitor drug traffickers across the United States despite objections from Justice Department lawyers who fear the practice may not be legal.
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.
The eavesdropping is aimed at dismantling the 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. Riverside wiretaps are supposed to be tied to crime within the county, but investigators have relied on them to make arrests and seize shipments of cash and drugs as far away as New York and Virginia, sometimes concealing the surveillance in the process.
The surveillance has raised concerns among Justice Department lawyers in Los Angeles, who have mostly refused to use the results in federal court because they have concluded the state court’s eavesdropping orders are unlikely to withstand a legal challenge, current and former Justice officials said .
“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. The lawyer and other officials described the situation on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the department’s internal deliberations.