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United States v. Amador

United States District Court, S.D. California

February 3, 2015

STEVEN AMADOR(2), Defendants.


ROGER T. BENITEZ, District Judge.

Now before the Court is Defendant's motion to suppress all wire and electronic surveillance evidence (filed December 2, 2014). Defendant's motion to suppress is denied.


According to the Government, in the spring of 2012, a law enforcement task force began investigating a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and collect "tax" money from drug dealers that operated with associates both inside and outside state and local detention and prison custodial facilities. As a result of the investigation, approximately 70 individuals have been charged. During the investigation, a number of wiretap orders were applied for and issued by judges in this and other United States District Courts.

Defendant now seeks to suppress evidence of telephone conversations between himself and others discussing the smuggling of drugs into state prisons and collecting "taxes" for the sale and distribution of those drugs inside the prison. According to the Indictment, Defendant was an inmate in a California state prison. According to the motion, Amador was said to have used target telephones 27 & 30, the subjects of wiretap orders on January 8, 2013 and January 24, 2013. Each order was issued by United States District Judge Hon. Irma E. Gonzalez. Defendant does not identify a particular interception for which he seeks suppression. Defendant asserts that each wiretap order was based on a Title III wiretap application lacking in various ways. The Government does not contest Defendant's standing to challenge the admissibility of wiretap evidence.


Defendant does not argue a Fourth Amendment right to suppression of his telephone conversations. Nevertheless, it is important to note that in most cases the Fourth Amendment protects the rights of the people "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Its protection extends to telephone conversations and requires the government to obtain a warrant before electronically eavesdropping.

However, the protection applies only if a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in not having his words or conversation overheard. See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). No court has ruled that a prison inmate has a reasonable expectation of privacy for communications he makes by cellular telephone. Defendant cites no case. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court decided that the Fourth Amendment proscription against unreasonable searches does not apply to a person within the walls of the prison cell. See Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 525-26 (1984) ("[W]e hold that society is not prepared to recognize as legitimate any subjective expectation of privacy that a prisoner might have in his prison cell and that, accordingly, the Fourth Amendment proscription against unreasonable searches does not apply within the confines of the prison cell. The recognition of privacy rights for prisoners in their individual cells simply cannot be reconciled with the concept of incarceration and the needs and objectives of penal institutions.").

Under Palmer, Defendant has no Fourth Amendment right to privacy while incarcerated upon which to base a motion to suppress evidence.


Defendant argues that the wiretap application supporting each wiretap order, which led to the interception of his cellular telephone communications, did not satisfy Title III. See Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510 et seq. ("The Wiretap Act" or "Title III"). As a general matter, Title III prohibits electronic surveillance by the federal government except under defined circumstances. The Act also provides for suppression of evidence in three instances enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 2518(10)(a). Defendant implicitly relies on that section to suppress.

Whether Title III applies to cellular telephone communications by or between prison inmates is a question of first impression. Title III was enacted in 1968, before the invention of the cellular telephone. It was enacted to protect the Fourth Amendment right to privacy for telephone conversations (as recognized in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967)). See Gelbard v. United States, 408 U.S. 41, 47 (1972) (legislative history is clear that Congress was concerned about "safeguard[ing] the privacy of innocent persons."); see also United States v. Forrester, 616 F.3d 929, 945 (9th Cir. 2010) ("Supreme Court has routinely acknowledged that § 2518... was enacted specifically to meet the constitutional requirements for electronic surveillance enunciated by the Supreme Court in Berger [ v. New York ] and Katz v. United States . "). While there have been more recent amendments, Title III still does not specifically mention cellular telephones.

The Ninth Circuit has acknowledged that a conventional wiretap order may apply to a cellular telephone in ordinary circumstances, and that a "roving wiretap" order is not required for a cell phone even though a cell phone has no fixed location. See United States v. Oliva, 705 F.3d 390, 400-01 & n.4 (9th Cir. 2012) ("As noted earlier, under Title III, the district court may authorize a standard intercept of communications over a land line or cellular telephone only if the government's application includes a particular description of the nature and location of the facilities from which or the place where the communication is to be intercepted.' § 2518(1)(b)(ii)."); see also United States v. Goodwin, 141 F.3d 394, 403 (2nd Cir. 1997) (assuming that Title III applies to cellular telephones and deciding that for a cellular telephone, the Government did not need to obtain a "roving wiretap."). But no court has addressed the applicability of Title III to a cellular telephone being used by a prisoner.

And no court has considered the impact of Congressional action in 2010 defining a mobile phone to be contraband for federal prisoners. See Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010, P. L. 111-225 [S 1749], August 10, 2010 (amending 18 U.S.C. § 1791); see also Statement by Senator Feinstein, 155 Cong. Rec. S10112-01, 2009 WL 3171677 ("This bill would close this loophole by defining cell phones as contraband material under Federal law. As a result, any person smuggling or in possession of a cell phone could potentially serve up to a year in prison. A cell phone should never be in the hands of a prisoner. The presence of these cell phones poses a grave safety concern for staff, inmates, and the public. We know that inmates ...

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