Warrant for wiretapping: Former Hamilton County judge says he set a high bar for investigators

Posted at 5:18 PM, Mar 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-06 18:42:25-05

CINCINNATI -- Before he was Hamilton County recorder, Norbert Nadel spent 40 years as a judge. He sometimes was asked to approve state search warrants involving wiretaps.

Nadel said he set a very high bar for investigators.

"Wiretaps are very sensitive situations," Nadel said. "So, as a judge, I think most judges -- and I know I did -- when we issued state wiretaps, I required a lot of evidence. I wanted to be pretty sure before somebody's lines are tapped."

The question of what's needed to get clearance for wiretapping arose anew this weekend, after an explosive claim from President Donald J. Trump: He alleged, without evidence, that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower ahead of the 2016 election. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Trump's claim was not true.

The I-Team examined 50 search warrants approved by federal judges in the Southern District of Ohio. Some of those warrants included requests for wiretaps used to track the locations and conversations of drug trafficking suspects.

Six weeks ago, for example, federal agents went to the Blue Agave restaurant in Springdale, where they conducted surveillance on the suspected ringleaders in a major drug trafficking operation. The agents used electronic surveillance, approved by a judge, to find the suspects -- at the restaurant, at a truck stop and on a highway, where agents said they found 20 kilograms of cocaine. Four men were arrested.

LINK: 2015 wiretap report compiled by federal courts

Requests for search warrants involving a wiretap typically provide a history of the investigator's credentials, evidence against the suspects, a description of how the wiretapping will be conducted and how it will further the criminal investigation. 

"I wanted to know exactly what they had," Nadel said.

The I-Team found some of the evidence outlined in recent search warrants federal judges have approved:

  • In an application for wiretaps focusing on a Cincinnati drug dealer, a federal agent revealed details of recorded buys made by a confidential informant.
  • In an application to tap a cellphone linked to a different drug trafficker, an agent explained that he was using the surveillance to identify other individuals who would be close to the dealer's phone and could be involved in the conspiracy.

Nadel said, in general, he doesn't like the use of wiretaps.

"I think it's an invasion," he said. "But where it's necessary to catch criminals or even for national security, it's probably pretty important."