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Re: Wiretap Operation Sheds Light on LAPD Tactics

Anonymous wrote:
> If it is Monday, December 7, 1998, you can go to
> http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/STATE/topstory.html and read about how
> Los Angeles police wiretapped a small cellular phone service provider
> because his policies were too helpful for drug dealers.  He didn't try
> hard enough to verify customer names, he sold cell phones with built in
> scramblers, he allowed customers to change phones and numbers easily.
> After years of investigation the company owners were never charged,
> but a number of their customers were convicted as drug dealers, in many
> cases never being told about the phone taps.
> It's an ominous account of how privacy-friendly policies can be used by
> the police to justify an investigation.

I am curious if the whole provider was just a front for the law


> If it's after December 7, read the story here:
> :      Los Angeles narcotics officers spent a lot of time spying on John
> : Lopez and his small storefront telephone company--Atel Cellular
> :      Convinced he was in cahoots with drug dealers by selling secure,
> : cop-proof phone service--no questions asked--they staked out his
> : Downey office, tailed his customers and finally wiretapped the
> : customers' and Atel's phones.
> :      Starting with just his business lines and a handful of customers,
> : the operation spread like kudzu, eventually covering hundreds of
> : phones and thousands of conversations and becoming the largest wiretap
> : operation in the history of Los Angeles County.
> :      When the three-year probe ended in March, police had arrested
> : dozens of Atel's customers, but not Lopez or any of his employees.
> :      The Atel taps are at the center of the nine-month legal
> : controversy over whether prosecutors have been improperly concealing
> : their wiretapping operation and the information derived from it. Also
> : at issue are charges by defense lawyers representing Atel customers
> : that the allegations against Atel Cellular are a sham created to win
> : court orders permitting an electronic fishing expedition against their
> : clients.
> :      Manager Lopez and Atel's owner, Atil Nath, refused to
> : comment. Their lawyers say the two men are not involved in drugs.
> :      "The whole concept [of the police wiretap operation] was
> : preposterous," said Dale Hardeman, a Downey attorney. "How are we
> : supposed to know if customers are involved in criminal activity?"
> :      Details of the probe--revealed through interviews, police
> : affidavits, wire monitor logs and volumes of court records--provide a
> : fascinating inside look at how detectives can mold the legal actions
> : of a suspect into criminal scenarios and persuade judges to authorize
> : snooping on people's private conversations.
> :      The probe also raises broader questions, such as whether many of
> : the reasons given for tapping Atel could just as easily be applied to
> : other phone companies, and whether wiretaps should be allowed to
> : continue indefinitely, even when police work for months without
> : finding enough evidence to arrest the target.
> :      The 4th Amendment protects phone privacy.
> : 
> :      Need for Probable Cause
> : 
> :      To tap a phone, prosecutors have to get a court order by showing
> : they have sufficient reason, known as probable cause, to believe the
> : phone subscriber is committing crimes. Even if a subscriber's actions
> : are legal when considered individually, those actions can amount to
> : probable cause when viewed as part of a larger picture.
> :      If a tap provides a lead or evidence, prosecutors must reveal the
> : tap and give transcripts to the defendant before trial.
> :      Though the Atel investigation established strong suspicion among
> : investigators that Lopez knew he was dealing with drug traffickers, it
> : fell far short of proving it.  But police were getting a steady supply
> : of leads against his customers as well as new phone numbers of people
> : they considered suspicious. So they kept going back to court for
> : extensions and new taps.
> :      Police referred all questions about the case to prosecutors, who
> : defend the wiretap practice, saying they had sufficient evidence to
> : suspect Lopez of wrongdoing.
> :      Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti noted in a prepared statement that the
> : operation had court approval. He said police targeted Atel because
> : they believed most of its business was providing phones to drug
> : dealers without requiring them to provide any personal information.
> :      Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk, who approved most of the
> : orders, said he could not discuss pending cases.
> :      Not much is known about Lopez and Nath. Nath lives in a two-story
> : home in a neat, well-kept neighborhood in Downey. Lopez lives in Pico
> : Rivera with his wife, Maria, and their children. Both have said in
> : court papers that they have no criminal record. Their company is one
> : of about three dozen small phone companies in Los Angeles County that
> : resell or sublease service and equipment.
> :      Police say the closest they came to showing a direct connection
> : between Lopez and drugs was during a stakeout at his home when they
> : saw a man arrive in a pickup truck registered to a member of what they
> : say is a drug gang.
> :      The investigation grew out of, and, in many ways, was modeled
> : after a 1994 wiretap of Downey Communications, another small retailer
> : of phone services. As in the Atel probe, police staked out the
> : business and collected information for wiretap orders.
> :      During hours of surveillance, they watched customers arrive and
> : leave. They noticed the types of vehicles they drove. They even took
> : notes on their manner of dress, eventually deciding that silk floral
> : shirts, pressed denim, hand-stitched leather belts and expensive
> : cowboys boots were haute couture on the L.A. drug scene.
> :      Police claimed that Downey leased to drug dealers and was
> : "heavily involved in the sale and transportation of narcotics."
> : Officers would later use the same language in Atel affidavits.
> :      The Downey wiretaps lasted a year. They ended in drug and cash
> : seizures and 12 indictments, including one against the brother of
> : Downey's owner. But the owners and employees of Downey were not
> : arrested. The owner said in court papers he was never interviewed by
> : police, was not aware of the investigation and has never been charged
> : with a crime.
> :      Police used the Downey Communications probe as a springboard to
> : Atel.
> :      The connection was tenuous.  Downey and Atel customers shared the
> : same taste in cars and fashion.  Downey employees were seen paying
> : short visits to Delta Tri-Telesis, a now-defunct cellular phone
> : business owned by Nath and operated by Lopez.
> :      So in September 1995, officers turned their binoculars on Atel,
> : which had taken Delta's customers.  They often saw customers in cars
> : registered to targets of previous drug probes going to houses once
> : used as drug "stash" sites and employing what police considered
> : "counter-surveillance" driving.
> : 
> :      Reports on Surveillance
> : 
> :      Investigators say they saw Lopez use such techniques when they
> : were tailing him in May 1996, shortly before they started tapping his
> : business phones. They said they saw him on the freeway changing lanes
> : erratically and driving "at a high rate of speed in excess of 70 miles
> : per hour," later making a U-turn on Arrington Avenue and lingering too
> : long--three minutes--at an intersection.
> :      Police also noted in affidavits that Lopez sold money counters
> : and phone scramblers; that he apparently didn't care if customers gave
> : him fictitious names; that he let customers change numbers quickly and
> : easily.
> :      Drug suspects were frequently found with Atel phones.
> :      Police saw what they considered suspicious calling patterns--too
> : many calls in a short period of time--among groups of Atel customers.
> :      Although such evidence was far from enough to file charges
> : against Lopez and Nath, legal experts say it was sufficient as
> : probable cause for a court order, which was granted in May 1996 for 30
> : days.
> :      After a month of wiretapping, Garcetti's prosecutors--armed with
> : transcripts of tapped phone conversations--were back in court asking
> : for the first extension of the court order and for permission to tap
> : new telephone numbers. From then on, requests for extensions built on
> : previous ones. Police eventually received 19 extensions.
> :      Although the taps provided a mother lode of leads against drug
> : dealers, they seldom offered much evidence against Atel. There was one
> : conversation that police described in an affidavit as particularly
> : damning for Lopez. It was on June 25, 1996, from "Oscar," who had been
> : under police surveillance.
> :      "Hey John, this number is no good," Oscar tells Lopez.
> :      Lopez: Not good?
> :      Oscar: They're on me again!  Right behind.
> :      Lopez: OK, bring it in now!
> :      But most of Lopez's conversations in the affidavits simply
> : confirmed what police already knew: that customers dealt directly with
> : Lopez, that Lopez based billing records on phone numbers instead of
> : names and that he handled billing arrangements by phone.
> :      In contrast, the conversations among customers were
> : fruitful. Most were cryptic discussions about drug deals, pickup
> : locations, delivery times, police said. According to investigators,
> : they never mentioned drugs, using words such as "ladies," "stuff" or
> : simply a number understood to be an amount of drugs.
> :      For example, in June 1996, police overheard this exchange:
> :      Receiver: How do they look?
> :      Caller: Real good. How many do you have?
> :      Receiver: 40 plus 5 out, plus some lying around.
> :      Caller: OK. I'll hold whatever else I have.
> :      Without interpretation by detectives, there is little indication
> : that that conversation is about drugs.
> :      By the time the operation ended in March, police had tapped close
> : to 400 Atel phones.
> :      The wiretap controversy erupted that month because San Diego
> : attorney Philip DeMassa and two other lawyers discovered that the case
> : against their clients sprang from information garnered from the Atel
> : taps and handed off to other officers who were not told of the taps so
> : they would not have to reveal them to defense lawyers.  Later, Deputy
> : Public Defender Kathy Quant went to court for indigent defendants.
> :      Garcetti acknowledged in June that he withheld tap information in
> : 58 cases and he agreed to notify defendants about future taps.
> : Although a judge upheld the wiretap handoff practice last month, with
> : some qualifications, Quant is considering an appeal. Other defense
> : lawyers are challenging whether Garcetti has revealed all tap cases.
> :      Whatever the outcome, the probe clearly helped police arrest some
> : of Atel's customers. It netted large amounts of narcotics, about $8
> : million in drug proceeds and dozens of arrests.
> :      Lawyers base their doubts about the investigation of Nath and
> : Lopez partially on the fact that it lasted three years and police
> : never tried to interview them. In fact, DeMassa alleges in court
> : papers that Lopez and Nath are actually police informants or are
> : perhaps cooperating through a grant of immunity from prosecution, an
> : assertion prosecutors call absurd.
> :      DeMassa is hoping to show that police misled the courts when they
> : said they were investigating Lopez and Nath.
> :      If Nath and Lopez were such an integral part of a gigantic drug
> : trafficking operation, the police should be trying to protect the
> : public from them, he said.
> :      "Why isn't anything happening to these guys?" he said.
> : 
> :      Acts Were Not Illegal, Critics Say
> : 
> :      None of Atel's acts described in the affidavits was illegal,
> : Quant and other critics say.  Well-known phone companies engage in
> : many of the same practices, Quant said. If police use the same
> : standards elsewhere, any companies, especially small retailers, may be
> : vulnerable to taps.
> :      Many of the actions cited in Atel affidavits are suspicious only
> : in the eyes of police, Quant said.  Money counters are legitimate, and
> : other firms advertise "no eavesdropping" cell phones because
> : legitimate businesses need secure communications, she said.
> :      There is nothing suspicious, for example, about high usage of
> : cell phones, particularly among real estate agents, salespeople, even
> : news reporters, Quant said.  And other small retailers allow people to
> : change numbers frequently.
> :      Regardless of Atel's guilt or innocence, what police did to Atel
> : could be done to any legitimate businesses, she said.
> :      Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Schirn dismissed that notion.
> :      "That's quite a stretch," he said.
> :      "Atel was a facilitator and made it possible for drug dealers to
> : break the law," he said.
> :      Yet Schirn acknowledged that he could not point to any conclusive
> : evidence that Nath and Lopez knew that some of their customers were
> : drug dealers.
> :      He said he didn't know if police tried to persuade defendants to
> : testify against Nath or Lopez.  Even if they did, prosecutors would
> : need more evidence than the tainted testimony of accomplices to make
> : an arrest, he said.
> :      As for Atel, Hardeman said his clients had no idea some of their
> : customers were criminals.
> :      "This investigation has virtually destroyed them," he said.

	- Igor.