Something the FBI has long considered to be part of its wiretapping efforts has been rejected by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Much like many people believe a 30-second-or-less clip from a movie, TV show or song entitles them to claim fair use, the FBI believes that a two-minute or less phone conversation can be listened to in its entirety even if it has nothing to do with the investigation at hand.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declined to adopt a rule that agents get a “two-minute presumption” on the reasonableness of wiretapping calls that are personal in nature.
The circuit did so while dismissing a civil suit brought against FBI agents by a woman who claimed her privacy was violated when agents taped intimate phone calls between herself and her husband during a criminal investigation.
The circuit said the woman, Arlene Villamia Drimal, will be allowed to file a new complaint against the agents.
Drimal is the wife of convicted insider trader Craig Drimal. She sued 16 FBI agents for conversations they overheard in 2007 and 2008 while executing a wiretap secured under Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, §§2510-2522.
This doesn’t necessarily “put to death” the two-minute window on personal calls FBI agents grant themselves, contrary to Drimal’s lawyer’s claims. The ruling is very specifically narrowed to cover only the FBI agents’ actions in this case. The 16 agents listed in Drimal’s lawsuit moved for dismissal, citing qualified immunity and pointing to a previous decision which allowed the FBI approximately two minutes to ascertain a call’s purpose and relevance.
They cited the Second Circuit case of United States v. Bynum, 485 F.2d 490 (2d Cir. 1973), where the court held a wiretap that monitored 2,058 in a large narcotics case did not violate Title III minimization requirement.
The Bynum court excluded calls under two minutes from its evaluation of the wiretap because “in a case of such wide-ranging criminal activity as this, it would be too brief a period for an eavesdropper even with experience to identify the caller and characterize the conversations as merely social or possibly tainted.”
The FBI has an indeterminate amount of time to discern the intent and content of wiretapped calls, with an obligation to disconnect as soon as it’s surmised the phone call has no investigatory relevance. This still remains in force, even with this rejection of its “two minute” argument. Without a doubt, this allowance has been abused to listen in on phone calls of a personal nature, but its intent is to minimize privacy violations while still allowing agents to collect evidence. What distinguishes this case from others is that the FBI agents were caught not “minimizing” wiretapped calls in violation of the court order authorizing the wiretap. This abusive behavior was called out by the presiding judge.
This case does not present the same circumstances as Bynum. Many of the violations here took place in the early stages of the wiretap when defendants were less familiar with the case and with Mrs. Drimal’s lack of involvement in it, but the agents should have realized reasonably early in the wiretap that these husband and wife conversations were not relevant to the investigation. As Judge Sullivan noted in Goffer, Mr. and Mrs. Drimal occasionally discussed “deeply personal and intimate” issues, 756 F. Supp. 2d at 594, and “in each of these calls it should have been apparent within seconds that the conversation was privileged and non‐pertinent,” id. at 595.
As a result, the reasoning from Bynum that it would be too difficult to minimize calls under two minutes is not applicable here where agents could determine in seconds that the calls between husband and wife were entirely personal in nature. The two‐minute presumption we applied in Bynum thus does not automatically shield defendants against the failures to minimize calls under two minutes that the putative amended complaint is likely to allege.
On one hand, the ruling undercuts the FBI’s assumption that all calls under two minutes in length can be listened to in their entirety, no matter their relevance to ongoing investigations. On the other hand, the ruling cannot be applied broadly to other FBI wiretapping efforts. Civil suits brought over alleged privacy violations aren’t going to be any easier to pursue as the “window” for FBI eavesdropping is still wide open, what with the Bynum ruling only applying to the specific facts of that case, rather than FBI wiretapping in general.
Drimal’s case was aided by a couple of unlikely incidents, one of which was two agents’ open admissions that they had listened to privileged phone calls. The other factor weighing into this decision was the very specific instructions the agents received, not only from the court issuing the wiretap order, but also from the US State’s Attorney. Without these two elements, the FBI would likely have been found to be acting lawfully within the confines of its wiretap policies and applicable court orders.