U.S. District Chief Judge William B. Bryant ruled late yesterday that an FBI search of the Washington offices of the Church of Scientology two years ago was unconstitutional because it amounted to a "general exploratory seizure" of documents.
However, Bryant's ruling -- the second time he has found the Washington raid unconstitutional -- is unlikely to have any direct effect on a pending criminal case against 11 Scientology officials and agents who are accused of conspiring to plant spies in government agencies, break into government offices, steal official documents and bug government meetings.
That trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 24 here before U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey.
The government has said repeatedly that it is not using any of the seized Washington documents in its criminal case against the Scientologists, but instead is basing its charges on a simultaneous July 8, 1977, raid at the church's Los Angeles headquarters. Attorneys for the charged Scientologists currently are challenging the Los Angeles search in pretrial hearings here before Judge Richey.
The ruling yesterday by Judge Bryant comes 16 months after he conducted two days of hearings into the manner in which the FBI agents carried out the Washington search.
The judge earlier had ruled the search was unconstitutional, based on the working of the search warrant, but he was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals. His ruling yesterday came after further hearings ordered by the appellate court.
"The type of seizure here involved should be forcefully discouraged rather than condoned," Bryant said in ordering the government to return all the seized documents to the church.
Church spokesman Hugh Wilhere said Bryant's ruling "breathes life into the Constitution by strongly upholding Fourth Amendment protections" against illegal searches. Church attorney Philip Hirschkop said he hopes the courts "will finally end the persecution of this church by the Department of Justice."
Hirschkop said he believes Bryant's ruling sets an "excellent precedent" for the ongoing hearings concerning the Los Angeles raid, because he believes the Fourth Amendment violations in the Los Angeles raid "are far worse than occurred in Washington."
The ruling by Bryant is the latest in a series of complicated legal actions arising out of the massive FBI raids of Scientology offices on July 8, 1977. Church officials immediately brought suit against the government, claiming the raids were illegal.
Bryant heard the civil challenge to the raids in the Washington case, and a California federal judge heard a similar challenge there. The California raid was upheld in that context by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to clear the way for the government to bring its criminal indictment against church officials.
However, Judge Richey -- to whom the criminal case is assigned here -- has been holding five weeks of hearings into the Los Angeles raids to see if they were carried out properly enough to permit evidence seized there to be presented in the criminal case.
U.S. Attorney Carl S. Rauh said last night that his office intends to seek permission from the Justice Department to appeal Bryant's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals here.