Federal drug agents spent months watching a tiny California jewelry store, secretly recording its owner's phone calls and intercepting couriers carrying away boxes full of cash. They gathered evidence that the store was laundering millions of dollars for drug traffickers. USA Today says the case fell apart in October when prosecutors said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wiretaps used as the core of its investigation were illegal and couldn't be used in court. Four suspects went free, and they want the government to give back nearly $800,000 that drug agents seized.
“These people were dealing in drugs, and they are guilty, and because of a procedural issue and a suppression motion, they got away with it,” said Mike Ramos, the district attorney in San Bernardino, Ca., whose office prosecuted the case. The wiretaps had been approved by officials in Riverside County, a Los Angeles suburb responsible for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps last year. USA Today and the Desert Sun found that prosecutors almost certainly violated a federal law that requires the district attorney to sign off personally on wiretap applications. More cases could be in peril. The DEA used wiretaps with the same legal flaw to build cases in California, Kentucky, Oregon and Virginia. State and federal prosecutors are beginning to review those cases to see whether they can go forward.