12:14 GMT18 January 2021
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    Two people are suing the California county of Riverside after they were wiretapped without being told about it afterward, as required by law. Instead, they found out by chance through friends and family.

    One of the plaintiffs is a retired California Highway Patrol officer.

    The surveillance-oriented nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is handling the case of the plaintiffs alongside a separate legal team.

    The number of wiretaps approved by the court in Riverside County in 2014 was three times that of any other state or federal court, according to the EFF.

    "The wiretap in this case was issued over three years ago, a time when Riverside County was issuing a record number of wiretaps," EFF wrote. "In 2014, for example, the court approved 624 wiretaps, triple the number of any other state or federal courts. The targets were often out of state, resulting in hundreds of arrests nationwide." At their height, the county's wiretaps — mostly for the benefit of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration — accounted for an entire fifth of all wiretaps in America, USA Today reported in 2016.

    After USA Today started reporting on the inordinate number of wiretaps in Riverside, the number issued in the county dropped from 640 in 2015 to 118 in 2017. At the time, the outlet called the practice "likely illegal." 

    The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are "two targets of hundreds of questionable wiretaps authorized by a single judge, Helios J. Hernandez, in Riverside County," the EFF wrote.

    "There are very real questions about the legitimacy of the warrant-approval process in Riverside County during the time when our clients were wiretapped, including questions about the behavior of the judge and the District Attorney's Office," EFF Staff Attorney Stephanie Lacambra said. "The court should release information about how this wiretap was approved and why, so both our clients and the public can understand what happened during Riverside County's massive surveillance campaign."

    Tina Salvato of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP, the firm representing the plaintiffs, said that their clients "don't know if they were targeted by accident, or if they were suspected of something, or on what basis the order was issued at all."

    The lawsuit seeks a ruling that would allow the plaintiffs to see the files relating to their wiretaps, as they were issued in "the midst of a highly scrutinized practice of excessive amounts of wiretap authorizations."

    US law requires that subjects of wiretaps be notified within 90 days of the conclusion of the surveillance. According to the EFF, the plaintiffs never received such notice — they only found out they were spied on after family members and friends who had been properly notified told them.


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