Monday, April 9, 2018
The NYTimes is reporting that the FBI raided the office of President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen. (see here). Raids on law offices are not new, and there have been many law offices throughout the years that have had FBI teams show up to obtain boxes of materials and computers. In places such as the Southern District of Florida, one might find a law office raided by the FBI when the attorneys represented individuals engaged in drug dealing, and the government believed that the attorneys were involved in the illegality. But perhaps what is new here, is that the attorney represented the President of the United States, albeit in his personal capacity.
Law firm searches are particularly tricky as the attorney is likely to have privileged information that may be compromised when the investigating agents view items in cases they are opposing. The US Attorney's Manual sets forth a procedure for searching law offices (U.S. Attys Manual - 9-13.420) to protect this information. The Manual provides that "[f]or purposes of this policy only, 'subject' includes an attorney who is a 'suspect, subject or target,' or an attorney who is related by blood or marriage to a suspect, or who is believed to be in possession of contraband or the fruits or instrumentalities of a crime." The Manual notes that:
There are occasions when effective law enforcement may require the issuance of a search warrant for the premises of an attorney who is a subject of an investigation, and who also is or may be engaged in the practice of law on behalf of clients. Because of the potential effects of this type of search on legitimate attorney-client relationships and because of the possibility that, during such a search, the government may encounter material protected by a legitimate claim of privilege, it is important that close control be exercised over this type of search. Therefore, the following guidelines should be followed with respect to such searches:"
The guidelines then note that prosecutors should use the "least intrusive approach," obtain "authorization by United States Attorney of Assistant Attorney General," consult with the Criminal Division - including submitting "a draft copy of the proposed search warrant, affidavit in support thereof, and any special instructions to the searching agents regarding search procedures and procedures to be followed to ensure that the prosecution team is not "tainted" by any privileged material inadvertently seized during the search." "If exigent circumstances prevent such prior consultation, the Criminal Division should be notified of the search as promptly as possible." The guidelines also provide that there is "safeguarding procedures" in place "to ensure that privileged materials are not improperly viewed, seized or retained during the course of the search." And in conducting the search, "to protect the attorney-client privilege and to ensure that the investigation is not compromised by exposure to privileged material relating to the investigation or to defense strategy, a "privilege team" should be designated, consisting of agents and lawyers not involved in the underlying investigation." Specific procedures are used for searching and seizing computers. Finally, guidelines also exist concerning the review of the materials obtained.
Bottom line - 1) All of this takes time. 2) The use of a search warrant against a law firm is not new. 3) Can a government taint team really assess privileged material? 4) The government procedures are concerned about protecting their cases, but who is monitoring and protecting the attorney's cases?
Hopefully, a court will soon step in to evaluate any privilege issues.