Former Riverside District Attorney Paul Zellerbach is in trouble, as Brad Heath and Brett Kelman report for The Desert Sun.
A judge issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for former Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach after he failed to appear at a court hearing to answer questions about an eavesdropping operation so vast it once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps.
“He should have been there,” said Jan Ronis, the attorney who subpoenaed Zellerbach. “But he just blew us off. We could have had court today.”
It’s not uncommon for Zellerbach to go missing when people need him. When Zellerbach ran the DA’s office, he was rarely there. The DEA found his office to be just as accommodating, with or without him, though. Although the DEA was supposed to run its wiretap warrant requests through federal judges and have them signed by the district attorney himself, it often found it easier to obtain a signature from whoever happened to be at the office and run them by Riverside County judge Helios Hernandez, who approved five times as many wiretap applications as any other judge in the US.
The wiretap applications’ reach frequently exceeded their jurisdictional grasp, traveling far outside of Riverside County, California, to be deployed against suspects as far away as North Carolina. But that was only one issue with the warrants applications approved by Zellerbach’s office.
The DOJ’s lawyers didn’t like the DEA’s skirting of federal rules for wiretap applications.
“It was made very clear to the agents that if you’re going to go the state route, then best wishes, good luck and all that, but that case isn’t coming to federal court,” a former Justice Department lawyer said.
“They’d want to bring these cases into the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the feds would tell them no (expletive) way,” a former Justice Department official said.
California’s wiretap laws weren’t being followed either, thanks to Zellerbach holding office in absentia.
Riverside County’s former district attorney, Paul Zellerbach, has acknowledged that he allowed lower-level lawyers to do that job, saying he could not recall ever having reviewed a wiretap application himself. Four of the wiretaps in the Kentucky case were approved by one of Zellerbach’s assistants, and one was approved by an assistant to his successor.
Now, the DEA’s toxic and possibly illegal wiretap warrants are being challenged, now that defense lawyers know exactly how much — and how often — state and federal requirements were being skirted by the drug warriors. That’s what has led to Zellerbach’s arrest warrant.
The first challenge, filed in Kentucky, led a federal judge to say that Riverside had issued so many wiretaps “that constitutional requirements cannot have been met.” The second challenge, filed locally, led to the warrant being issued for Zellerbach.
Zellerbach was subpoenaed to appear in the case of Christian Agraz, 33, an accused drug trafficker who was allegedly caught on a wiretap selling bricks of heroin in 2014.
The former DA did not appear at the hearing in the Agraz case on Tuesday morning, so Judge Michele Levine issued a bench warrant and assigned a bail of $1,500.
The constitutional requirements say Zellerbach was supposed to sign each wiretap applicationpersonally. Paul Zellerbach can’t recall approving a single one of the hundreds that flowed through his office over the years.
The DEA’s Riverside County-centric drug war looks like it’s going to result in several cases being tossed out. Fortunately, the DEA still can keep everything it’s claimed via civil asset forfeiture, which makes good busts out of bad ones and makes obtaining convictions entirely optional.