VENTURA : Judge Scolds Two for Eavesdropping

A judge on Thursday condemned two members of the Ventura County district attorney's office for eavesdropping, but delayed ruling on whether to dismiss a criminal charge against the burglary defendant who says his privacy was violated.

"I don't think there is any question that what occurred is not OK," Superior Court Judge Charles W. Campbell Jr. said, though the eavesdropping charges had been dismissed Wednesday. "I think the message is clear that this type of conduct is highly inappropriate and is going to have a significant impact on anyone" who engages in it.

Campbell said he would rule in a hearing this morning on whether to dismiss a burglary charge against Robert Lee Morrow, 30, who is accused of breaking into a room at a Port Hueneme motel last September.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Stacy Ratner and investigator Katherine Smith were charged with felony eavesdropping May 20 after they listened in on a conversation between Morrow and his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Mary Fielder, in January.

The charges were dropped Wednesday by a judge who said the eavesdropping law is ambiguous. Superior Court Judge Lawrence Storch ruled that Ratner and Smith do not have to stand trial in the case because they did not use an electronic device to eavesdrop.

At a hearing Thursday to determine whether the charges against Morrow would also be dropped, Ratner and Smith both took the stand but refused to answer questions under their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Fielder argued that Morrow's right to a fair trial had been prejudiced because the prosecution learned part of his trial strategy by eavesdropping.

She called the conduct of Ratner and Smith "extremely outrageous, if not criminal."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Meyers said the eavesdropping gave the prosecution no insights into Morrow's strategy.

"The defendant lost nothing with this incident, and the prosecution gained nothing," he argued.

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