Feds secretly bugged courthouse grounds to eavesdrop on private conversations, motion says

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Wiring a federal agent or informant would have been legal.

But the feds crossed the line by secretly installing microphones in at least three locations outside a California courthouse in 2009 and 2010 and eavesdropping on private conversations, says a motion. It was filed by defendants in a criminal case over claimed manipulation of foreclosure sales by real estate investors to drive down prices, reports the Recorder (sub. req.). The filing seeks to prevent the use of hundreds of hours of recorded evidence against the defendants.

With the OK of the Department of Justice and FBI lawyers, the government made the warrantless recordings with electronic bugs hidden in a planter, a wall-mounted metal sprinkler box and vehicles parked near an entrance to the San Mateo County courthouse in Redwood City, the defendants allege. This violated the defendants’ Fourth Amendment rights, says a motion to suppress (PDF) filed Friday in the San Francisco federal court case.

“It bears repeating that this particular public place was immediately outside a courthouse,” says the motion at one point. “Defendants’ expectation that discreet conversations outside a courthouse would remain private is surely one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.

“Private affairs are routinely discussed as citizens, their lawyers and even judges walk to and from court, and lawyers often take clients aside outside the courthouse for privileged conversations. ‘Common experience’ and ‘everyday expectations’ teach that individuals frequently have private conversations near the courthouse despite the public’s access to this location, and expect that such conversations are not subject to the type of dragnet electronic eavesdropping that took place in this case.”

Updated on Nov. 19 to clarify a statement about the defendants’ allegations.

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