New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
August 21, 2009

Lawyers in the Dock: EDNY Judge Suppresses Communications Obtained in Violation of Title III’s Minimization Requirement

Behind the convictions of criminal defense lawyers Robert Simels and Arienne Irving yesterday on charges of witness tampering and obstruction of justice is a profound question: should there be different rules for the prosecution of lawyers?  The Simels prosecutors thought yes, and drafted a unique protocol for the minimization of communications intercepted under a Title III warrant.  EDNY Judge Gleeson disagreed.  In United States v. Simels, 2009 WL 1924746 (E.D.N.Y. July 2, 2009), he suppressed the fruits of the Title III surveillance because the protocol was internally inconsistent and improperly minimized dissemination rather than the initial interception.  In addition to being a detailed primer on Title III minimization issues, especially in the context of privileged communications, the decision joins its companion, discussed here, as another important landmark in the small body of jurisprudence on how (and how not) to prosecute a lawyer for an act of lawyering. 


As part of an investigation into allegations that defense attorneys Robert Simels and Arienne Irving were seeking to influence witnesses in the upcoming trial of their client Shaheed Kahn, the government obtained an order under Title III permitting it to intercept communications between Simels, Irving and Kahn, in the attorneys’ visiting rooms at MCC. 

Because the targets included two lawyers, the order contained two minimization provisions, both proposed by the government.  The first was a standard provision, requiring the monitoring agents “to minimize the interception of communications not otherwise subject to interception under [Title III], including . . . privileged communications.”  The second directed the agents to record (without listening to) all communications between Simels or Irving and their client, and provided for after-the-fact minimization by “Wall Agents” and a “Wall AUSA.”

Two meetings were recorded under the order, and only the second minimization directive was followed (in other words, the meetings were recorded in their entirety and not contemporaneously monitored).  Simels and Irving were later indicted on obstruction of justice and witness tampering charges, among others.  They moved to suppress the fruits of the wiretap surveillance because of a failure to minimize. 

Minimization Cannot Occur After the Horse Has Bolted

Granting the motion and suppressing the communications, Judge Gleeson found that the government’s minimization efforts here were unreasonable, and the post-interception minimization procedure violated Title III.  For one thing, the two minimization provisions in the order were internally inconsistent.  “By definition, an agent cannot minimize the interception of communications that should not be intercepted by intercepting all communications and sorting them out later.”  Moreover, while Title III permits post-interception minimization in two circumstances (where the communications are in code or in a foreign language), neither applied here.

[T]he way to avoid intercepting privileged or nonpertinent communications (as opposed to merely avoiding the unlawful dissemination of communications that should never have been intercepted in the first place) is take reasonable steps not to intercept them. Automatically recording everything, even where that is followed by a post-interception minimization protocol, virtually guaranteed the interception of communications the government should not have seized. The post-interception minimization may have closed the barn door, but the horse was already gone . . . When the government deliberately intercepts nonpertinent communications, it is no comfort to those whose privacy has been invaded that only government actors not involved in a particular criminal investigation will be listening to them.

Privileged Communications Are Not Special

The prosecutors had taken pains to avoid disseminating privileged communications, but Judge Gleeson debunked the idea that privileged communications should not be intercepted in wiretaps.  “Communications undoubtedly occur that are both pertinent to the crimes enumerated in an order issued pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2518 and privileged under some other body of law, and nothing in Title III prohibits the interception of such communications based on their privileged status.” 

Good Faith Not a Defense

Although the court found that the prosecutors’ good faith was “indisputable,” that was not relevant to the outcome.  Title III has its own statutory exclusionary rule, and Judge Gleeson found “no indication in the statute that good faith is relevant to the operation of this exclusionary rule.”


In developing their ill-fated protocol, the Simels prosecutors, to their credit, recognized the serious ramifications of bugging MCC’s attorney interview rooms.  But from a defense perspective, if you’re challenging the fruits of such interceptions on minimization grounds, the horse has already bolted.  What is far more interesting here is what led to the wiretap authorizations in the first place: several visits to Simels’ law office by a cooperating witness wearing a wire, who proceeded to discuss defense strategy in Khan’s case with Simels and Irving.  Judge Gleeson had denied Simels’ concededly “novel” motion to suppress these consensual recordings and their fruits on the grounds that the government’s use of a wired cooperator in these circumstances was unconstitutional.  But the motion begs the important question of whether there should be some formal rules requiring judicial supervision before wired cooperators are deployed into a law office.  Bad lawyers do not deserve special treatment, but aggressive advocacy does, and that kind of advocacy may be chilled by the kinds of highly intrusive surveillance and investigative techniques employed in this case.

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