Friday, May 11, 2007
Court Allows Lawyer to Sue Over Intercepted Phone Call
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A Tustin lawyer who claims that the Los Angeles Police Department and District Attorney’s Office illegally intercepted his conversation with a client during a sweeping wiretap program in the 1990s can sue, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Reversing a ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge William Rea, now deceased, the court said Jack Whitaker has standing to sue the city and county, along with former Police Chief Willie Williams and former District Attorney Gil Garcetti, among others. The defendants, he contends, used falsified warrants to obtain the wiretap.
The three-judge panel, in an opinion by Judge Susan Graber, upheld most of Rea’s ruling that barred Whitaker and seven drug dealers from suing. While Whitaker was never charged with a crime, the other plaintiffs were convicted and sentenced to between eight and 17 years in prison.
A criminal defendant who is convicted challenge the means by which the evidence against him or her was gathered by bringing a suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 to, Graber explained. Senior Judge Thomas G. Nelson and Judge Sandra Ikuta joined in the opinion.
A call to Whitaker seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Philip A. DeMassa, a San Diego attorney who argued the case for the plaintiffs, praised the ruling.
“It’s saying that other people, other than criminal defendants, can go to court and have rights also,” he said.
Before the opinion, DeMassa said, authorities wiretapping in criminal cases could secretly monitor civilian calls without telling the callers, even though under normal conditions it is illegal to listen in on attorney-client conversations.
“You’re wiretapping not only bad guys but you’re sweeping everything into the system,” DeMassa said. “They can hear you talking to your priest.”
Deputy City Attorney Lisa Berger, who helped argue the appellate case, said the opinion was “good reasoning, and I’m sure will be good precedent.”
The case stemmed from investigations in the 1990s during which police, with approval from then-District Attorney Gil Garcetti, tapped more than 50 cell phone lines operated by two local communications companies. Tens of thousands of conversations were intercepted and led to the arrest of seven people for possessing a total of 550 pounds of cocaine.
The arrestees were cell phone customers and none had been under criminal investigation. The asserted justification for the wiretaps was that the cell phone companies were facilitating drug deals by providing service to known drug dealers and money launderers.The case is Whitaker v. Garcetti, 05-55629.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company