Sunday, August 6, 2017
The Ninth Circuit ruled last week that Maricopa County officials violated federal law when they sought and obtained a wiretap, but that that the subject couldn't recover damages, because the officials acted in good faith and consistent with Arizona law and long-standing practices.
The ruling adds to a complicated body of law on federal preemption under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 of state law authorizing wiretaps. The Ninth Circuit aligned with the approach of the First Circuit, and asked whether state procedural protections were "in substantial compliance with the federal law."
The case arose when County Attorney Montgomery, pursuant to state law, authorized a deputy to apply for a wiretap. The deputy obtained an order, and officials intercepted eight conversations between Manuela Villa and her daughter in 2011 and 2012. Officials, pursuant to long-standing state practice, then did not immediately deliver the recordings to the state court that authorized the wiretap.
Villa sued under Title III, arguing that officials violated Title III of the federal Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, and that Title III preempted Arizona law that authorized the wiretap. In particular, Villa argued that County Attorney Montgomery, acting pursuant to state law, improperly delegated the authority to apply for a wiretap order to his deputy, in violation of Title III, which requires the "principal prosecuting attorney" to apply for a wiretap. Villa also argued that Deputy Brockel, acting pursuant to long-standing practice, failed to timely submit the recordings to the state court that authorized the wiretap, in violation of a Title III requirement that officials submit intercepted conversations to the authorizing court "[i]mmediately upon the expiration of the period of the order, or extensions thereof."
The Ninth Circuit first ruled that Villa lacked Article III standing to seek declaratory and injunctive relief. The court said that she could demonstrate no individualized future harm that would justify prospective relief. The court rejected Villa's taxpayer-standing claim out of hand, and held that she "does not allege that she is more likely than any other member of the public to have her future conversations illegally intercepted." Because Villa lacked standing for prospective relief, the court said that she also lacks standing to pursue prospective relief on behalf of a putative class.
In contrast, the court held that Villa did have standing to pursue individual damages for past interceptions, but, as below, couldn't actually recover.
The court held next that Title III preempted Arizona law, and that Arizona officials violated Article III. As to authorizing wiretaps, the court adopted the standard set by the First Circuit: "so long as the state wiretapping statute, considered as a whole and as interpreted by state courts, is in substantial compliance with, and is therefore equal to, Title III, state wiretaps are permissible." The court said that Arizona's statute, which authorizes a principal prosecuting attorney to delegate authority to apply for a wiretap to a deputy, didn't meet the standard: "substantial compliance with Title III requires that the principal prosecuting attorney indicate, as part of the application process, that he or she is personally familiar with all of the 'facts and circumstances' justifying his or her 'belief that an order should be issued,'" but that the Arizona statute permitted the "principal prosecuting attorney to state that he or she is [only] generally aware of the criminal investigation . . . ."
As to making the recordings available to the court that approved the wiretap, the court said that "long-standing practice" at the time of Villa's wiretap, in which "county officials submitted recordings of intercepted conversations for sealing only at the conclusion of an entire criminal investigation," was "not in substantial compliance" with federal law. But the court went on to say that a practice of submitting recordings within 10 days would be in compliance with the Act.
But even though the court concluded that officials violated the Act, it also ruled that Villa couldn't recover damages, because the officials acted in good faith, consistent with Arizona law or long-standing practices. (Good faith is a defense under a Title III cause of action.)