Riverside, CA – Two individuals with no criminal record—one of whom is a retired California Highway Patrol officer—are asking a California Superior Court why their phones were tapped in 2015. These are just two targets of hundreds of questionable wiretaps authorized by a single judge, Helios J. Hernandez, in Riverside County.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP represent the targeted individuals, who were never charged and never received any notification that they were the subject of a wiretap order, despite the law requiring such notice within 90 days of the wiretap’s conclusion. Instead, they only learned about the wiretap from friends and family who did receive notification.
The wiretap in this case was issued over three years ago, a time when Riverside County was issuing a record number of wiretaps. In 2014, for example, the court approved 624 wiretaps, triple the number of any other state or federal courts. The targets were often out of state, resulting in hundreds of arrests nationwide. After a series of stories in USA TODAY questioned the legality of the surveillance, watchdogs said that the wiretaps likely violated federal law.
“There are very real questions about the legitimacy of the warrant-approval process in Riverside County during the time when our clients were wiretapped, including questions about the behavior of the judge and the District Attorney’s Office,” said EFF Staff Attorney Stephanie Lacambra. “The court should release information about how this wiretap was approved and why, so both our clients and the public can understand what happened during Riverside County’s massive surveillance campaign.”
Riverside County’s wiretaps have since dropped from 640 wiretaps in 2015 to 118 in 2017, nearly all related to narcotics cases. Riverside was second only to Los Angeles County, which filed 230 wiretaps last year. Orange County and San Diego County, which are both larger than Riverside in terms of population, only approved 10 and 28 wiretaps respectively. Yet the District Attorney’s Office has still refused to release the old and new policies on wiretapping, rejecting multiple EFF public records requests since 2015.
“There are so many questions about what went on with these wiretaps. And it’s only fair our clients get answers. They don’t know if they were targeted by accident, or if they were suspected of something, or on what basis the order was issued at all,” said Tina Salvato of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP. “But this is also a matter of public interest, and we hope the court sees this too.”
Data on state-level wiretaps are disclosed in the U.S. Court’s annual Wiretap Report and in the California Attorney General’s Electronic Interceptions Report. Last year, EFF successfully pressured the Attorney General to begin making these records available in a machine-readable format through the California Public Records Act.
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