Justice Department defends legality of vast DEA wiretap program

Posted: Monday April 25, 2016, 1:30 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

The Justice Department offered its first defense this week of a once-vast eavesdropping program carried out by federal 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 a series of 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 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors in Riverside County, Calif., so large that it once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps. Monday’s filing was the first time the Justice Department expressed an opinion publicly on whether it was legal.

In it, prosecutors offered a narrow defense of the halted wiretap program, arguing mainly that the accused trafficker's lawyers had not offered up enough evidence that the particular taps used in that case violated federal law. But they attached evidence that could help the defense make that case.

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, had 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.

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