Police may have broken wiretap law while investigating officer

July 17, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

Annapolis police, acting on a state prosecutor's advice, apparently violated a Maryland wiretap statute by taping an officer's telephone conversation at work without a court order.

With the go-ahead from an assistant state's attorney, police officials said, an internal affairs investigator recorded a brief phone conversation between a female officer and her ex-boyfriend. The officer is under investigation for a series of charges, including harassing her former boyfriend and making violent threats, according to sources in the city government.

"There's been no cloak and dagger routine," said Annapolis Police Chief Harold Robbins. "We sought legal advice and direction before we took any action, and then we proceeded on the basis of that opinion."

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins said he was first made aware of the incident during an executive session following the City Council meeting Monday night. The mayor said yesterday that he had spoken to the chief and was fully satisfied that "the department has done nothing wrong."

Mr. Robbins said it was "the first and only time" the police department has tapped a phone since he assumed command in October 1990.

It's not illegal to intercept a conversation under federal law, as long as one person in the conversation agrees. But some states, including Maryland, have adopted stricter statutes on wiretapping than the provisions in the omnibus crime legislation passed by Congress in 1968.

Eavesdropping with regular phone equipment is permitted in Maryland, but recording a conversation is not, unless one person agrees or a court order is obtained, said Gerald K. Anders, deputy state's attorney.

He said the prosecutor who gave the advice cannot remember the conversation completely and is unsure what she told the police investigator.

The chief declined to discuss the case in detail, saying only that there was a "very serious allegation against the officer" and he "felt it was necessary to make a thorough investigation."

The officer, whose name is being withheld because no criminal charges have been filed, apparently did not make any threats during the five-minute telephone conversation that was recorded, sources said. But the tape wouldn't be admissible in court anyway, Mr. Anders said.

"It appears to be in violation of the law," he said yesterday.

City attorney Jonathan Hodgson said the police department "acted on good faith reliance upon the State's Attorney's Office." As city attorney, he added, he would not say that any law had been broken.

The prosecutor on duty the day the investigator called can't remember "if she said it was OK to listen over an extension or to record it," Mr. Anders said. He did not name the attorney, nor would the police chief.

Mr. Hopkins said he first learned of the incident when Alderman Carl O. Snowden, D-Ward 5, called an executive session to discuss a legal matter that he said could have significant financial consequences for the city. Mr. Snowden was out of town yesterday and could not be reached.

Alderman Ellen O. Moyer, D-Ward 8, said the focus of the closed-door meeting Monday night quickly shifted to a discussion about keeping the council abreast on legal matters. Several aldermen questioned not being informed in advance of the sex scandal that rocked the city fire department last winter.

"The major concern was, 'At what point do we get briefed?' " she said. "I don't think all the parties are always in the loop. But I don't believe there was any resolution."

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