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Supreme Court declines Capitol Hill search and seizure case

Court of Appeals determined Federal agents violated the Constitution's speech or debate clause when they seized documents from the office of Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana.

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Mr. Trout said the issue was not whether all searches of congressional offices were barred. The real question, he said, was whether the FBI's search procedures were sufficiently protective of the legislative privilege created by the speech or debate clause.

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"A finding that the speech or debate clause does not include a non-disclosure privilege would permit exactly what the clause was designed to prevent: a politically motivated investigation involving the execution of search warrants expressly aimed at legislative documents," Trout wrote.

"Never before in the history of this country has the executive branch deemed a search of a congressional office to be necessary to achieve the goals of law enforcement," Trout said.

A targeted member of Congress should be permitted to review the potential documents to determine which should be withheld or turned over to the agents, Trout said. This effort could be monitored by a federal judge.

But government lawyers complained that the judicially monitored system set up by the courts in the Jefferson case was not proceeding fast enough to be useful to investigators.

"The executive seeks only unprivileged evidence of criminal conduct, and it would come into only cursory contact with any privileged materials in the course of searching for unprivileged ones," Garre wrote.

Safeguards already exist to prevent politically motivated investigations, Garre said. Among them, a neutral magistrate must issue the search warrant and may do so only after finding probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.

The investigation of Jefferson brought national headlines with the disclosure that federal agents discovered $90,000 hidden in food boxes in the Congressman's home freezer. The reports prompted jokes about cold cash. Federal officials said serial numbers on the bills matched the numbers of $100,000 that had been delivered in a suitcase to Mr. Jefferson days earlier by a witness cooperating with the government in the investigation. The money was to be passed by Jefferson to a Nigerian official, according to investigators.

Congressman Jefferson denies any wrongdoing and has said he will fight to clear his name.

The search of Jefferson's office came after investigators said they discovered evidence that the congressman's family had received shares of a Nigerian company and more than $400,000 in cash in exchange for Jefferson's help promoting the company in Washington.

Federal agents had attempted to obtain the relevant documents from Jefferson through subpoenas. When the effort failed more than a dozen agents arrived at Jefferson's office armed with a warrant to seize documents and copy computer hard drives. The search began Saturday night, May 20, 2006, and continued for 18 hours.

Word of the raid sparked a loud and bipartisan outcry among members of Congress who said federal agents had overstepped their authority by invading the domain of a co-equal branch of government. President Bush entered the fray, ordering all the seized material to be sequestered until the matter could be resolved. Although the office documents remained out of reach to federal investigators, the Jefferson investigation continued.

Despite publicity surrounding the ongoing corruption investigation, Jefferson was reelected in November 2006.

In June 2007, he was named in a 16-count indictment. The charges include soliciting bribes, racketeering, obstruction of justice, money laundering, and conspiracy.

His trial was scheduled to begin in February, but it has been delayed by a pre-trial appeal.