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SAN DIEGO — Military criminal investigators raided Marine Corps defense counsel offices at Camp Pendleton, opening files during a 2½-hour search and potentially compromising scores of cases, the attorney who oversees Marine defense lawyers in the region said Friday.
Investigators raided the offices May 2 in search of a cellphone tied to a case being tried at the base, north of San Diego, Lt. Col. Clay Plummer told The Associated Press.
"This is just unacceptable," said Plummer, the Marine Corps' regional defense counsel for the West. "Just think of the U.S. federal Marshals or FBI raiding a public defender's office, that's what this is the equivalent to. It's crazy."
Marine Corps officials called it a "rare event" and said a neutral, independent judge advocate has been appointed to review the seized evidence to identify whether any potential privileged material was improperly disclosed. Also to be reviewed is how the search was conducted.
Officials said they could not comment further because of pending litigation and the independent review.
Defense lawyers were contacting dozens of clients to inform them that military law enforcement officials had opened case files, Plummer said.
The search's authorization was granted by the area commander. Two armed, uniformed officers and members of the criminal investigative division came into the building and did not allow anyone to leave while they searched for the cellphone, Plummer said. They searched every attorney's office — including those with no relation to the case — and continued to search even after locating the cellphone, he said.
Investigators opened case files but did not remove any, taking only the cellphone with them, Plummer said.
Plummer said his lawyers will be filing motions in response.
"Our intent is we are going to fight this behavior through litigation in our courts with the hope our courts can do something so this never happens again," Plummer said.
Lawyers in the offices are handling cases for offenses ranging from an unauthorized absence to murder. One of the most prominent cases handled by defense lawyers at Camp Pendleton is that of Lawrence Hutchins III, a Marine sergeant who is being retried in an Iraq war crimes case on charges that include murder and obstruction of justice.
"This search just seems totally egregious," said former Navy officer David Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "It's egregious enough to get a search warrant to search the premises of defense attorneys. I don't understand why they simply did not get an order for the attorneys to turn over the cellphone."
Glazier said generally investigators try not to search defense lawyers' offices because improper disclosure of confidential files can be grounds for dismissal of a case.
"It offers all kinds of opportunities to screw up cases," he said.