Court: Wiretaps illegal in drug case

A series of wiretaps used by law enforcement to topple a large drug network in Mesa County were improper because the surveillance was not authorized by Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger, according to a ruling from the Colorado Court of Appeals.

However, a sampling of local attorneys who handled cases linked to Stephen Parsons’ drug organization — authorities claim the group imported up to 20 pounds of methamphetamine into Mesa County on a monthly basis — say they don’t expect the court’s decision to have sweeping ramifications for those who were charged and ultimately convicted in the bust.

In a ruling authored by Appeals Court Judge Dennis Graham and released Thursday, a panel of judges threw out the jury trial conviction of 43-year-old Tommy O’Hara, who was sentenced to 96 years in prison in 2006 for his role as a supplier of drugs to Parsons’ organization, which authorities say stretched from Grand Junction to Colorado Springs, Phoenix and beyond.

The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for O’Hara, which Hautzinger said he’s happy to provide.

“I’m appalled by this extremely narrow-minded ruling,” Hautzinger said. “I think people are getting increasingly frustrated with judges looking for technicalities to let criminals go, and this is a classic example.”

The decision, should it stand, would disallow in O’Hara’s new trial the use of hours of wiretap phone conversations made by O’Hara and other members in Parsons’ organization.

While agreeing that testimony during O’Hara’s trial showed Hautzinger was informed about and involved in the use of the wiretaps, the Court of Appeals said an application for the use of the surveillance was prepared by a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, according to the opinion.

Officers sought approval for the surveillance from Chief Judge David Bottger starting in January 2006, and the judge received regular updates on the investigation before and after the arrests were made public in March 2006.

“It is the district attorney’s specific authorization of a specific wiretap application, not his involvement in the investigation, which safeguards the public’s privacy against this extraordinary investigative device and satisfies the requirements of state and federal wiretap statutes,” the opinion said.

Ed Nugent, a local attorney who handled Parsons’ case, said the ruling wouldn’t impact his client because Parsons waived his right to appeal when he accepted a plea agreement. Parsons — who claimed he loaned money to meth addicts to help them get clean while describing himself as a “big tattooed teddy bear who loves kids and elderly people” — was sentenced in October 2006 to 24 years in prison.

O’Hara was among two people charged in the investigation whose cases went to trial, while most remaining defendants accepted plea agreements. In doing so, they also gave up their right of appeal.

Some 31 people were arrested in the investigation.

“If this (ruling) stands up, you can bet any applications for wiretaps from here on out are going to have the signatures of elected district attorneys,” Nugent said. “It’s not difficult, and it wouldn’t have been difficult in this case, to be in compliance with the law.”

Hautzinger said an appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, or a petition for another hearing before the Court of Appeals, can be expected.


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