Constitutional Law

Raid of Congressman’s Office Improper

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A federal appeals court ruled today that the FBI must return privileged legislative documents seized in a raid of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s office last year.

Jefferson was indicted after the raid on charges he solicited more than $500,000 in bribes. He has pleaded not guilty.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said in its opinion (PDF) that the FBI agents conducting the search should not have viewed paper documents, the Associated Press reports. The on-site review exposed legislative material to the executive branch and violated the legislative privilege created by the speech or debate clause, the court said.

The FBI should have given the congressman an opportunity to identify and assert the privilege for legislative materials before searching his office, Judge Judith Rogers wrote for the panel. She said the agency will have to return documents determined by the court to be privileged. But the agency may keep other materials, she said.

“Although the search of Congressman Jefferson’s paper files violated the speech or debate clause, his argument does not support granting the relief that he seeks, namely the return of all seized documents, including copies, whether privileged or not,” Rogers wrote.

Rogers noted the FBI had not yet reviewed hard drives seized in the raid and said Jefferson could assert the privilege before the agency does a computer search for relevant materials.

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