A reputed Mexican drug dealer now on trial in Los Angeles for the murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent Enrique Camarena won a bitterly disputed legal battle in an unrelated drug case Monday over the legality of warrantless U.S. searches on foreign soil.
A divided panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2 to 1 that a 1986 search of Rene Verdugo-Urquidez's home in Mexicali, Mexico, which was set up by U.S. drug agents, violated the Mexican national's rights because the U.S. agents and accompanying Mexican police had no warrant.
While the decision of the 9th Circuit panel has potential impact on the conduct of U.S. law enforcement agents operating overseas, lawyers on both sides said it will have no impact on the murder conspiracy trial in Los Angeles in which Verdugo is a principal defendant.
The decision by Circuit Judges David Thompson and William Norris upheld an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving of San Diego. That decision banned the use of narcotics tally sheets found in the Mexicali house as evidence in a marijuana smuggling case now in pretrial stages in San Diego.
In their majority opinion, Thompson and Norris noted that if the murder charges against Verdugo are proved true at his trial in Los Angeles, "there is little doubt that his conduct has placed him beyond the pale of civilized society."
The judges added, however:
"The threshold issue we confront is whether a foreign national whose foreign residence has been searched by U.S. law enforcement officers may challenge that search under the Fourth Amendment. . . . Under the facts of the present case, we hold that such a challenge may be raised."
Rejecting the idea that the U.S. Constitution "imposes substantive constraints on the federal government," even when it operates abroad, Judge J. Clifford Wallace called the majority decision a "startling" proposition.
Wallace predicted the decision could create major problems for U.S. law enforcement officials in future cases, saying:
"The ruling ignores the practical realities that when our agents conduct searches abroad, they are at the mercy of foreign officials. The foreign officials are the ones who decide the scope and reasonableness of any proposed search, whether the search will occur at all and under what conditions it will be conducted."
Theory on Kidnaping
U.S. officials say Camarena was kidnaped in Guadalajara, Mexico, in February, 1985, and later murdered at the home of Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero. Verdugo, 36, is now on trial with two others in connection with the killing.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Roger W. Haines Jr. of San Diego said Monday that the drug records ruled inadmissible in the San Diego case were "an important piece of evidence, but not crucial." Verdugo's lawyer, Michael Pancer of San Diego, agreed that the evidence taken from the Mexicali house has no relevancy to the murder-conspiracy case in Los Angeles.