White-Collar Wiretaps

This’ll be quick, because we’re pretty busy working on a wiretap case, which is always time-consuming if done right.  But as our mind’s on that topic anyway, we thought we’d quickly point out that the latest round of insider-trading cases is again largely derived from wiretaps.  Here’s a roundup over at the WSJ’s law blog.

We just wanted to jump in and point out that just because there were wiretaps, by no stretch of the imagination does that mean the case is a slam dunk.  There are all kinds of ways that agents and prosecutors can and do screw up wire cases.  If properly challenged, the recordings and all evidence gotten as a result of them can get thrown out, which pretty much kills the case.  Don’t go saying this can’t happen, because we happen to see it plenty.  (The one we’re working on right now is a prime example of how not to conduct a wiretap investigation, for example.)

But even if the evidence doesn’t get suppressed, that doesn’t mean it can’t be successfully attacked at trial.  Cross-examining taped evidence isn’t the easiest skill to master, but it’s definitely doable.

If you’re really interested, you can go take our CLE lecture on how to defend these kinds of cases over at West Legal Ed Center (shameless plug).  Or if you prefer, here’s a quick cut-and-paste from a longer post we put up the first time this happened, when the Galleon case broke (original post here):

Wiretap evidence is anything but a sure thing. We know. We did wires for years in the Rackets Bureau of the Manhattan DA’s office, and now we defend them. We’ve taught a nationwide CLE on how to successfully defend them for West LegalEdCenter. Wiretaps are not a sure thing.

They can be defeated with technicalities. Eavesdropping is probably the greatest invasion of privacy that the government can inflict, and so we make law enforcement jump through all kinds of hoops before they are allowed to get an eavesdropping warrant. There are so many i’s to dot and t’s to cross, that the feds hardly use wiretaps in the first place. You’d think otherwise, but it’s so. Plus, they have to go through so many steps in the chain of command to get permission to apply for a warrant, that by the time they could have done so the need or probable cause has evaporated. State prosecutors do way more wires than the feds do.

Because the feds rarely do them, they’re not necessarily as on the ball as certain state-level offices might be. And except for those few high-caliber state offices, the locals can be even more error prone.

That’s big, because little errors in wiretaps have big consequences. Usually, they mean the government loses the case. A little oversight leads to the suppression of all the evidence derived from that point forward in the case, and a multimillion-dollar investigation just went down the toilet. No bullshit.

What kinds of technicalities are there? Tons. Some are just stupid. One particularly stupid requirement is the “sealing” requirement. The idea is that we don’t want to risk having the tapes or CD-ROMs of the intercepted conversations tampered with. We don’t want Nixonesque 17-minute gaps in the evidence. We want the assurance that the evidence never had a chance to be fucked with, and is as pristine now as when it first came in. And so the law requires that the tapes or CDs be sealed immediately, which usually means having them wrapped in evidence tape and having a judge sign and date the tape with a Sharpie.

But “immediately” doesn’t mean “immediately.” Instead of sealing the tapes right after they were recorded, the law says they have to be signed within 24 hours after the expiration of the warrant. Warrants are typically good for 30 days. So the whole month’s worth of tapes or CDs have to be assembled and sealed no later than 24 hours to the minute after the expiration of the wire. And that can be a tough deadline to meet. Especially when, say, it’s 5:04 on a Friday afternoon and all the judges are on their way out of town for the weekend. Or when, out of the hundred or so tapes for that month, one of them by accident didn’t make it into the group to be sealed, which can easily happen. Or when the judge took forever reading that 160-page renewal application, and the deadline passed when he’d only signed half the tapes.

This 24-hour rule is not a “good faith” or “close enough” rule. 24 hours and one minute means the evidence on those tapes cannot be used, and any evidence that resulted from what was heard on those tapes must be suppressed. The case is over. It’s technicalities like these that make prosecutors sweat and cross their fingers and hope the defense attorney won’t be paying attention.

Another technicality, believe it or not, is who signed the warrant application in the first place. The law is very particular about who is allowed to sign the application. Only certain enumerated DOJ officials, or the elected head of the DA’s office, are allowed to do it. We once had to work pretty hard when a very good defense attorney named Marty Adelman noticed that we’d had a substitute sign on behalf of Mr. Morgenthau when the boss was out of town. We had to prove that he really was legitimately unavailable, not merely at a function or indisposed, and that the substitute was the legitimate second-in-line. We’d done it right, of course, but others don’t. At one point, about a gazillion wiretaps had to be thrown out because the U.S. Attorneys in D.C. were having them signed by someone not on the authorized list.

The big thing, of course, when trying to controvert an eavesdropping warrant, is not the technicalities but the probable cause.

There has to have been probable cause to believe that a particular crime, listed in the wiretap statute, was being committed. That evidence of that crime would be found by listening in on a particular phone. That a particular named person would be using that phone, whose conversations would be evidence of the crime. And traditional investigative methods like surveillance, undercovers, informants, subpoenas, etc. wouldn’t get the job done.

That’s a lot to prove. The warrant applications have a heavy burden to meet. A good defense attorney is going to look for chinks in the armor, weaknesses in the alleged probable cause, and is going to fight hard to get the warrants and all their fruits thrown out.

And doing that work, and making the prosecution work hard to defend itself, and letting them know that they’re going to be working this hard for the rest of the case, can convince them to rethink their plea position at the very least.

When looking at probable cause, a decent attorney is going to notice whether the warrant application sections laying out the arguments are just boilerplate, cut-and-pasted from earlier applications, or whether they actually are tailored to the investigation as it then stood. Boilerplate, if it doesn’t really apply here, is a fraud on the court! That warrant and everything thereafter just got thrown out.


Well, what if the defense litigated the eavesdropping, but it’s all still coming in? They’ve got a trial on their hands. What do they do now? They can’t fight the tapes in front of a jury can they? How can you possibly cross-examine taped evidence?

It ain’t easy, but a smart lawyer can do it.

First of all, you have to realize how wires get started. They don’t come out of the blue. Probable cause does not land in some cop’s lap.

There’s an easy way, and a hard way, to start a wire. The hard way is to have all this suspicion, based on historical intel about your players, surveillance of their movements, and scuttlebutt from the community. Then you track down their phone numbers, and subpoena tons of call records to see who they’re calling and when. Then you look for patterns, and see what you can dig up about the people they call. And you try to put together a res ipsa argument that this criminal activity must be going on over that phone. That ain’t the easy way.

The easy way, like with any investigation, is to flip an informant. Someone screws up, and now needs to work off a likely sentence. The only way they can do that is by getting someone else in trouble. So they agree to wear a body wire, or introduce an undercover, or (usually) consent to the recording of their own phone calls with the target.

Bang. Right there, we’ve got all kinds of arguments for reasonable doubt. Arguments to piss the jury off at the government and want to acquit our client.

Because what is the informant trying to do? He’s trying to get our client in trouble. He’s trying to elicit an incriminating statement over the phone that’s going to let the government tap that number. That doesn’t just happen.

No, that call is going to be scripted. Or rehearsed. Or both. That call is going to have a purpose, and Mr. Informant is going to do whatever he can do to manipulate that conversation so he gets the incriminating words he wants. Or at least words that sound incriminating.

You see where this is going, don’t you? You may never use the word “entrapment” itself, but by golly you’re going to plant that concept in the jury’s mind. That informant was out to save his own skin. That informant did not tell our client the truth. That informant lied about what that conversation was about. Those lies were scripted and rehearsed with the agents beforehand. This whole case is built on lies. And the conversation didn’t go according to plan. Our client was not about to incriminate himself. So that informant manipulated him, changed the subject, hounded him, cajoled him to say things he otherwise never would have said. Throw some in-check indignation, and you can have one pissed-off jury.

And you fight the recordings themselves. “But look at the transcripts, they’re cut and dried,” you say? Poppycock. Those transcripts are nothing but interpretation. Any defense lawyer who sits back and relies on the government’s own interpretation of what is on those tapes needs to find another line of work.

Because everything on those recordings is open to interpretation. Nobody in the real world speaks in clear prose, with footnotes explaining their jargon and inside references. Nobody talks like that.

People throw ideas around. They talk things through. They change their mind. Taken out of context, a statement on Day 1 can sound really incriminating. But in context with a statement on Day 2, it’s perfectly innocent.

People talk in code. Not just spies and crooks, but everyday folks. Nobody spells it all out, that would infuriate the listener. Stuff that the other person also knows goes unsaid. People use jargon that outsiders can easily misinterpret. Phrases like “you’re going to put me in jail” could really be a schtick between friends for “my boss isn’t going to like this,” rather than the literal meaning. But taken out of context, perfectly innocent words can sound damning. Any one of us could face prosecution if our own conversations were selectively lifted out of context.

So it is critical that the defense listen to all of the intercepts, not just those highlighted as the prosecution’s greatest hits. The defense needs to get the whole context, and be able to explain ostensibly incriminating conversations as being perfectly innocent. The client should help as much as possible.

Other room for interpretation is what the freaking words were in the first place. We had plenty of occasions where we listened to a tape and heard one phrase, our detectives heard at least two different phrases, and our trusted paralegals heard it yet another way. Nobody enunciates every consonant. Speech is casual. It’s rushed. It’s muddled. It’s amazing that our brains can separate out as much as we do. But in doing so, we often see patterns where they don’t exist, and hear words and meanings that were never said. It’s like optical illusions for the ear, and they happen all the time. Have an inaudibility hearing if you have to, and get the statement tossed altogether if need be.

So any fool who relies on the government’s transcripts deserves to be called a fool. Make your own dang transcript, and make sure you can sell it to the jury. Youwant to be the voice they trust.

There are tons of other ways to tear the intercepts apart. These are just a starter. But this post is already getting far too long…

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