Recent searches of two Los Angeles law firms conducted by agents of the California attorney general have ignited a legal controversy in the state bearing directly on the long-presumed sanctity of lawyers' offices and the attorney-client privilege.
Citing an increasing involvement if lawyers with a more sophisticated class of criminals, state Attorney General George Deukmejian has put members of the California bar on notice that he will not treat their premises like "private sanctuaries beyond the reach of law and justices."
In response, a number of Los Angeles attorneys have volunteered to handle litigations arising from the searches, and discussions are underway in the legal community to see that a bill prohibiting broad searches of law offices in introduced in the state legislature.
Meanwhile, former California lieutenant governor Mervyn Dymally has files a $10 million civil rights suit in Los Angeles Superior Court charging Deukmejial with violating his right to privacy.
The suit, filed today, stems from the April 5 search by the attorney general's agents of two Los Angeles law offices maintained by Edward L. Masry, Dymally's attorney.
The search, according to an affidavit filed in support of the search warrant, was part of an investigation into an alleged scheme of Masry client - the Long Beach-based Morningland Church of the Ascended Christ - to bribe the former lieutenant governor to head off a legisative probe of the cult-like institution.
"My investigation reflects $10,000 in Morningland funds were paid to Edward L. Masry for Mervyn Dymall to influence an official act by a state official," said a spokesman for the attorney general's office. "These funds have not been reported as campaign contributions by Morningland, Masry, or Dymally."
Dymally, currently working as a consultant to the government of his native Trinidad, described the search of Masry's officers as "a raid," and called it outrage . . . based on contrived rumors."
In his brief, Dymally claims that his confidential files as well as "voluminous records . . . and numerous other items not related to or connected with the alleged purpose of the warrant" were removed from Masry's office in violation of the attorney-client privilege.
The Masry search followed by two weeks a similar inspection by the attorney general's agents of the prominent. Beverly Hills law firm of Kaplan, Livingston, Goodwin, Berowitz & Selwin.
The search of the 60-members Kaplan, Livingston firm, part of a probe into alleged abuses in the state Medicaid program, was cut short by a Los Angeles judge who granted a request for a temporary restraining order. No documents were seized. Unlike Masry, the lawyers in the large firm were not themselves the subjects of an official probe. Investigators were seeking financial records on the client - a medical supply concern.
Attorney General Deukmejian, citing pending litigation, refused to be interviewed on the policy regarding searches of lawyers' offices. However, in an address on the subject made on April 18 before the Los Angeles Peace Officers Association, he lashed out at the criticisms by civil libertarians, declaring that "the real issue behind the feigned claims of outrage is whether lawyers, white-collar criminals of politicians are entitled to preferred treatment by the law."
The recent searches have shed light on what appears to be a not uncommon practice of prosecutors. Los Angeles criminals defense attorney Larry Tarlow, the immediate past president of the 1,400-member California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and an authority on the law of search warrants, said he knows of 24 southern California lawyers whose offices have been searched by local prosecutors within th e past three or four years.
Los Angeles District Attorney John K. Van de Kamp said in an interview that his office searches law firms only as a last resort, and then allows attorney to direct investigators to the files in question to aviod compromising the attorney-client privilege.
Masry, however, said that when he tried to prevent the search of his offices, he was arrested for interfering with the search of one office. When he was released from jail, he traveled across town to his other office where he was again arrested for trying to impede the searchers.
When they finished their day-long searches of Masry's offices, the agents left with stacks of documents, many of which, Masry said, had no connection with the subject under investigation.
After the search of one of his offices, Masry accused state agents of taking investigative files which, he claimed, linked California Lt. Gov. Mike Curb to organized crime figures. (California newspapers have published reports of similar allegations, which Curb has denied.)
Masry and his associates, present during the search, said in sworn affidavits that the agents refused an offer to provide them "with all documents relating to Morningland and former lieutenant governor Mervyn Dymally, and instead . . . each and every file drawer, wastepaper basket, ledger, memorandum, and document in [Masry's offices], including every client file, were systematically invaded by the government officials."
Litigation challenging the validity and scope of the recent searches of the Los Angeles law firms is pending. The cases are being handled on voluntary bases by concerned area lawyers.
Masry is attempting to test the breadth of a subsequent warrant searching his bank records; along with an associate, he also filed a $15 million civil right suit againtst Deukmejian similar to the one Dymally has brought against the attorney general. CAPTION: Picture, MERVYN DYMALLY . . . files civil rights suit