For years, the DEA relied on a Riverside, California magistrate judge, Helios Hernandez, to write illegal wiretap warrants, making Hernandez the national champion of wiretapping warrants, signing off on five times more than any other judge in America.
Despite warnings from their own prosecutors that the wiretap orders were illegal, the DEA persisted in using Henandez's warrant-mill, rather than doing things the legal way. Hernandez's warrants formed the basis for 2 million intercepted conversations involving 44,000 people.
Now, the DEA's suspects are successfully challenging the evidence against them, and those cases are collapsing. Most recently, the suspects in a San Bernardino money laundering case prevailed despite the police having secretly intercepted couriers "carrying away boxes full of cash, sometimes stuffed with $100,000 or more."
DEA spokespeople are furious — with the defendants, not with their own officers, whose corruption and unwillingness to follow the law blew their own cases.
The San Bernardino case was the first, but it will probably not be the last — many defendants and convicts across America had the cases against them built by the DEA with Henandez's funny warrants.
Lawyers for Lay and the other suspects asked a judge in San Bernardino to throw out the wiretaps and all evidence tied to them. Prosecutors did not object; Deputy District Attorney Mallory Miller said during a hearing in October that they did "not have a legal position to oppose" the request.
Prosecutors dismissed the case.
Lay and others have taken the unusual step of asking a federal court in Los Angeles to return nearly $800,000 of the money DEA agents seized during the investigation. They started that fight before the criminal case was dismissed, but their case got considerably stronger after prosecutors in San Bernardino conceded that wiretap evidence was tainted. Justice Department lawyers have not indicated how they will respond to that request.
It is almost impossible to know how widely the DEA has used tainted wiretaps from Riverside County; many records related to the surveillance are sealed. State and federal court records show prosecutors have relied on Riverside County wires signed by Zellerbach's assistants to make arrests in California, Kentucky, Oregon and Virginia.
After illegal wiretap, suspects go free and want a refund
[Brad Heath and Brett Kelman/USA Today]
Justice officials fear nation's biggest wiretap operation may not be legal [Brad Heath and Brett Kelman/USA Today]