Federal appeals court judge ordered U.S. prosecutors to stop a review of tens of thousands of emails from prominent Baltimore defense attorneys Ken Ravenell and Joshua Treem and turn the records over to the courts.
The order from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond halts the review of emails by federal agents working in Greenbelt as part of an investigation into the two attorneys. The agents already have filtered through a majority of the more than 50,000 emails, Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Hines told the appeals court Tuesday.
Now, the rest of the work falls to a magistrate judge.
The order comes as a victory for Treem’s law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy. An attorney for the firm argued that federal prosecutors exceeded their authority by seizing all of Treem’s emails and by assigning federal agents to filter through the records. Such work trampled on protections that safeguard communications between a lawyer and his clients, James P. Ulwick, an attorney for the firm, told the court.
Of more than 50,000 emails seized from Treem, only 116 came from Ravenell, Ulwick said.
“We are pleased that the Court agreed with us that the US Attorney’s proposed method of review of those documents was wrong and needed to be stopped,” Ulwick wrote in an email Friday. “The Law Firm looks forward to working with the Court to expedite the return of its documents, and we greatly appreciate the speed with which the Court of Appeals stepped in to protect Law Firm and its clients.”
The judges handed down their order in two days.
“Clearly, we will abide by the decision,” said Marcia Murphy, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore.
Both she and Ulwick declined to discuss the matter further.
The decision came Thursday and it orders a magistrate judge to seize all the emails, filter out those that don’t relate to Ravenell and return the rest to Brown, Goldstein & Levy. Further, the prosecutors must hand over all their own work materials from the review so far.
Federal prosecutors have closely guarded their reasons for investigating Treem and Ravenell. The case remains sealed from the public. The appeals court filings are partially redacted and do not name the law firm, Treem or Ravenell, but they do contain enough information to identify them. In the few court records available, prosecutors indicate that Ravenell was under investigation for helping drug dealers, money laundering and obstruction, and that an investigation into Ravenell had been obstructed by Treem.
Agents previously raided Ravenell’s office in 2014, when he worked as a partner at the law firm of William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. Ravenell left the firm shortly thereafter. That raid has gone unexplained.
Since then, Ravenell has emerged as one of Baltimore’s top defense attorneys, representing defendants in high-profile criminal cases such as the murder last summer of 7-year-old Taylor Hayes.
Treem, also a veteran attorney, began his career as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore in the 1970s, according to his firm’s website. He went on to defend high-profile clients including the Indianapolis Colts who were sued after leaving Baltimore in 1984. He handles white-collar crime.
Their appeals court case has drawn attention from legal observers who have waited to see if judges would give federal prosecutors the latitude to seize and review emails from defense attorneys. The prosecutors in Baltimore had shopped out their review to DEA and IRS agents in Greenbelt, arguing the distance would keep from their eyes any emails pertaining to other clients.
Still, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Robert B. King described the move as “nothing but the fox being in the hen house.”
The order is similar to one made last year in the federal investigation of Michael Cohen, a former private attorney for President Donald Trump. The courts ordered materials seized from Cohen’s office and home to be reviewed by a retired judge to filter out records protected by attorney-client privilege.