Academic journal article Suffolk University Law Review

Criminal Procedure - Government May Not Introduce Evidence Derived from Illegal Private Wiretaps despite Its "Clean Hands" - United States V. Crabtree

Academic journal article Suffolk University Law Review

Criminal Procedure - Government May Not Introduce Evidence Derived from Illegal Private Wiretaps despite Its "Clean Hands" - United States V. Crabtree

Article excerpt

Criminal Procedure--Government May Not Introduce Evidence Derived from Illegal Private Wiretaps Despite Its "Clean Hands"--United States v. Crabtree, 565 F.3d 887 (4th Cir. 2009)

Congress strictly regulates telephone surveillance--or "wiretapping"--through the comprehensive Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Title III). (1) One of Title III's primary enforcement mechanisms is [section] 2515, an exclusionary rule that calls for suppression of any evidence derived from unauthorized wiretaps. (2) In United States v. Crabtree (3) the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit considered whether [section] 2515 prohibits the government from introducing evidence derived from illegal private wiretaps in a criminal proceeding. (4) The court held that [section] 2515 requires suppression of all illegally intercepted communications, even where the government was not the interceptor but rather a mere passive recipient of privately intercepted communications. (5)

Daniel Crabtree made incriminating phone calls from the telephone of his live-in girlfriend, Betty Starnes, while on supervised release from prison.6 Unbeknownst to Crabtree, Starnes recorded these calls and notified Crabtree's probation officer that she had tape recordings of Crabtree threatening to burn her house and truck. (7) Based in part on these recordings, the probation officer initiated proceedings to revoke Crabtree's supervised release, alleging that Crabtree had violated the terms of his release. (8)

At the revocation hearing, Crabtree moved to exclude Starnes's tapes from evidence. (9) Crabtree based his motion on [section] 2515 of Title III, arguing that because Starnes recorded his calls in violation of Title III, [section] 2515 required the court to suppress the illegally intercepted conversations. (10) The district court agreed that Starnes had violated Title III, but nevertheless allowed the government to introduce the tapes it had innocently received, finding an implied "clean hands" exception to [section] 2515. (11) The district court went on to find that Crabtree had committed all of the alleged violations, and sentenced him to twenty-four months imprisonment plus an additional three-year supervised release. (12) On appeal, the Fourth Circuit--holding that [section] 2515 contains no clean hands exception--vacated the district court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings without consideration of the illegally intercepted communications. (13)

Since the advent of wiretapping over a century ago, courts and lawmakers have sought to strike the appropriate balance between law enforcement interests and privacy interests. (14) Title III--enacted for the dual purpose of protecting the privacy of communications and setting uniform standards for the authorization of wiretapping--represents Congress's most recent effort to achieve that balance. (15) Congress designed Title III to authorize wiretapping in the fight against organized crime within the strictures of the Fourth Amendment's bar on unreasonable searches and seizures. (16) In the interests of privacy, Title III broadly prohibits interception of telephone conversations or intentional use or disclosure of the contents of such conversations. (17) Consistent with its dual purpose, however, the protections of Title III are not absolute. (18) For example, Title III provides an exception for law enforcement officials investigating specified serious crimes, but only after application to a judge and a showing of probable cause. (19)

Section 2515 is a statutory exclusionary rule central to the operation of Title III. (20) Section 2515 provides that the contents of communications intercepted in violation of Title III, along with any evidence derived therefrom, are inadmissible in any proceeding. (21) Congress modeled [section] 2515 after the judicially created Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule. (22) Exclusion of illegally intercepted communications under [section] 2515 serves to protect privacy and preserve the integrity of the courts. …

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