U.S. v. Hassanshahi: no suppression of evidence obtained through the DEA metadata database

United States v. Hassanshahi, Criminal Action No.:13-0274, 2015 WL 7303515 (D.D.C. Nov. 19, 2015)

Initial  decision

Mr. Hassanshahi was charged with conspiring starting in March 2009 to export or cause to be exported goods and technology from Canada to Iran, and related services from the US to Iran, without obtaining the license required under federal law. Subsequently, he moved to suppress evidence obtained through a forensic analysis of a laptop seized from him at Los Angeles International Airport on January 2012, arguing that the evidence was the product of an unlawful search of a law enforcement database. In response, the government refused to provide details about the database. In accord with the government’s position, Judge Rudolf Contreras assumed arguendo that the database was unconstitutional, but denied suppression on the ground that the discovery of the evidence on the laptop was too removed from the search of the database. United States v. Hassanshahi, 75 F. Supp. 3d 101(D.D.C.2014). Nonetheless, the judge ordered the government to provide  more information about the database.

Denial of motion for reconsideration

On January 15, 2015, the government revealed that starting in 1992, the United States Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had amassed metadata on all telephone calls from the United States to as many as 116 of the 195 countries recognized by the US. In the light of this and the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in May 2015 in ACLU v. Clapper, 785 F.3d 787, Mr. Hassanshahi asked the Court to revisit its refusal to suppress the evidence recovered from his laptop.

Statutory challenge

The government revealed that the DEA had assembled its bulk telephony metadata database by issuing administrative subpoenas to telecommunications companies under 21 U.S.C. Sec. 876. As a result of a search at Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) behest, the DEA had obtained and disseminated Mr. Hassanshahi’s telephone number to HSI.

On reconsideration, the defendant argued that the evidence obtained from his laptop should be suppressed because 21 U.S.C. Sec. 876 (“Sec. 876”) neither authorized the assemblage of the DEA’s bulk metadata database nor allowed information in the database to be disseminated to other government agencies. The government countered that individuals were not empowered to bring judicial challenges to subpoenas issued to third parties under Sec. 876. Holding that a violation of Sec. 876 would not give rise to a suppression remedy, the Court declined to reach the jurisdictional issue or to decide whether Sec. 876 limits the DEA’s ability to disseminate information to other government agencies.

Constitutional challenge

On reconsideration, the Court assumed, as per the government’s initial offer, that both the assemblage of the DEA’s database and its search at HSI’s behest were unconstitutional. Nonetheless, the Court held that neither the government’s revelations about the DEA database nor the Second Circuit’s decision in ACLU v. Clapper in May 2015 warranted reversing its initial ruling that the discovery of the evidence on Mr. Hassanshahi’s laptop was too removed from the assemblage and search of the DEA database for the evidence to be suppressed.

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