US citizen loses bid to suppress Jamaican wiretaps

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. authorities working with the Jamaican government had no duty to review the legality of Jamaica's surveillance of a U.S. citizen suspected of drug crimes, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

Facing conspiracy and other charges, Stephen Lee asked a Brooklyn judge to suppress wiretaps from Jamaica that the U.S. government planned to use as evidence against him. The judge denied Lee's request, and he was convicted in 2012 of conspiring to distribute and conspiring to import 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana destined for the U.S. market. He was acquitted on two counts related to importing and distributing a single load of marijuana in 2007.

The judge's denial was the right move, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled, and it upheld Lee's conviction.

Though an American law enforcement agency and its foreign counterpart may collaborate on their work, that does not necessarily mean the relationship is sufficient enough to trigger constitutional protections, the three-judge panel of the appeals court wrote.

Constitutional law "does not impose a duty upon American law enforcement officials to review the legality, under foreign law, of applications for surveillance authority considered by foreign courts," the court wrote. Thus, it added, Lee's lawyer was not entitled to review the wiretap application materials submitted by Jamaican law enforcement officials to Jamaican courts.

Defense attorney Jillian Harrington called the ruling "in line with recent revelations regarding the government's cavalier attitude toward unregulated electronic evidence gathering."

"We are, of course, very disappointed in the court's ruling today," she said. "It is very troubling to think that an American citizen can be prosecuted in an American court with evidence obtained by a foreign nation with absolutely no review of the manner in which that evidence was gathered."

A government spokesman declined to comment.

The appeals court said the U.S. and Jamaica signed a memorandum of understanding in 2004 establishing a program in which Jamaican law enforcement officers investigating drug distribution monitored intercepted phone conversations authorized by Jamaican court orders.

The U.S. provided surveillance equipment and training to Jamaican officers with the expectation that wiretaps would result in evidence that could be used in U.S. courts, the 2nd Circuit said.

The court said Lee was captured speaking about drug shipments to individuals in Jamaica who were targets of an investigation that stretched from 2006 to 2009, though Lee himself was not a target. It added that intercepted conversations in Jamaica led U.S. authorities to seek electronic surveillance warrants against marijuana trafficking targets in the United States.

The appeals court noted that there were instances when evidence obtained abroad may be excluded from a U.S. trial, including when the conduct of foreign officials in acquiring evidence is so extreme that it shocks the judicial conscience and when cooperation with foreign law enforcement officials may implicate constitutional restrictions.

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