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RI Supreme Court to decide if wiretap against Pagans Motorcycle Club should’ve been suppressed

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PROVIDENCE — Wiretaps are powerful investigative tools that enable law-enforcement agencies to tap into private communications, but only in limited circumstances under strict judicial oversight. 

It’s just such tools that authorities employed for close to a year to gather evidence in hopes of ensnaring Pagans Motorcycle Club President Deric “Tuna” McGuire and dozens of his associates in a sweeping investigation into drug dealing and firearms crimes in 2018.

But whether the state police had the legal authority to intercept communications from a dozen phone numbers that investigators believed to be linked to criminal activity by McGuire and others proved central Wednesday to arguments before the state Supreme Court.

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he attorney general’s office asked the Supreme Court to reverse a 2019 order by Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel that suppressed crucial wiretap evidence in McGuire’s case and 23 others.  

Assistant Attorney General Christopher Bush argued Wednesday that Vogel was wrong to conclude that state law authorizes only Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney or Superior Court Judge Robert D. Krause, Gibney’s second in command, to sign off on wiretaps. 

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Instead, Bush told the court that state law empowers Gibney to designate any Superior Court judge to review wiretap applications, as happened in 2017, when Gibney assigned Judge Melanie Wilk Thunberg to review wiretaps in McGuire’s case. Gibney asked Thunberg to handle the wiretaps as she went out on medical leave, because it would have created a conflict for Krause to later preside over the cases in gun court. Krause handles many of the state’s most serious firearms cases.

Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg and the other justices pushed back against Bush’s reading. They cited the language in the state Wiretap Act, referenced by Vogel, that specifies wiretap applications be made to “the presiding justice of the superior court or the senior associate justice of the superior court whenever the presiding justice shall deem it necessary to disqualify himself or herself from entering the order.”

Bush responded that Gibney had not “disqualified” herself due to conflict or bias, so that section didn’t apply. 

“This is a very, very narrow parsing of language, Mr. Bush,” McKenna Goldberg said. 

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