Md. police seek law for easier wiretaps

Use of technology by criminals outruns current authority

January 03, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Aware that police might be eavesdropping, drug dealers not only watch what they say on their cell phones. They "burn" their phones and "bust" them. They create phantom phone numbers and treat a handset the way a tourist might treat a disposable camera, discarding it after a few good shots.

As prosecutors and detectives in Baltimore increase the use of wiretaps against major drug organizations, they have discovered that their targets' phone capabilities outpace their own.

To catch up, law enforcement officials from across Maryland are proposing legislative changes that would expand and simplify the use of wiretaps.

A principal objective is to be able to quickly switch a wiretap from phone to phone, mirroring a suspect's maneuvers.

"Over the last couple of years, as we've been doing more of these wiretap investigations, we've come face to face with what the shortcomings are," said city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who will hold a news conference on the issue today.

But efforts to streamline the wiretap application process, which is now closely reviewed by a judge, are sure to meet some opposition in the General Assembly from the American Civil Liberties Union, among others.

"There is reason to be concerned that the police will become Big Brother," said Maryland ACLU spokesman Dwight Sullivan. "We want police to be aggressive in fighting crime, but we also need to have the barrier between the aggressiveness and the public, and that barrier is the judge."

Wiretapping is the most intrusive and sophisticated investigative tool police have, to be used only when more conventional methods are exhausted. Maryland's wiretap laws, which require more judicial oversight and offer less flexibility than those of most other states, were last updated in 1988, back when having a pager was cool.

Since then, investigators say, technology and sophistication have shot ahead. It's not unusual for drug organizations to buy cell phones in bulk, making sure not to use one line for more than a few days. In one Baltimore case, a suspect owned about 50 cell phones.

Warrant for each phone

Current law is geared more toward the phone than the suspect, requiring investigators to reapply for a new warrant each time they want to listen to a new line - a process that means writing about 100 pages of affidavits explaining to a judge why the wiretap is crucial to a case.

Rewriting the warrant application also slows down an investigation, sometimes at a crucial moment.

In July, for instance, Eric L. Buckson, 31, a now-convicted drug dealer serving a 40-year prison sentence, had just met with a cocaine source when he noticed someone following his car.

He hit a parked vehicle, then another. His car burst into flames and he ran away, leaving the drugs and his tapped cell phone to get drowned by firefighters.

To Buckson, the incident was probably a scare and a nuisance. To investigators it represented a significant obstacle: Within hours, Buckson was using a new phone, but it would take prosecutors much longer to apply for a new wiretap. By the end of the investigation, prosecutors would tap 15 different phones, creating 22,000 pages of evidence.

Criminals have advantage

Maj. Anthony G. Cannavale, commander of the Baltimore Police Department's drug enforcement unit, said changes to the law would help reduce the criminals' advantage.

"It's always a game of wits with the drug dealers," he said. "We're really at a breakwater point, where if we don't get a handle on the technology, we're going to be out of business."

In the past couple of years, Baltimore has greatly expanded its use of wiretaps in an effort to move from street arrests of low-level drug pushers to kingpins with international narcotics connections. The city Police Department and State's Attorney's Office have created special "technology" units, and they perform more wiretap investigations than any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

Though wiretaps consume enormous amounts of time and money, their success is undeniable, as compiled in a recent report prepared by Jessamy's office: In the past two years, wiretaps have led to the dismantling of nine drug organizations - a total of 118 defendants with links to Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and the seizure of nearly $800,000, 66 cars, 84 guns, 14 kilos of heroin and 10.5 kilos of cocaine.

But criminals are becoming more savvy about wiretaps, thanks in part to the recent investigations.

Tipped by attorneys

Cannavale said his officers have found wiretap affidavits, which include extensive surveillance details, when searching drug dealers' houses - documents probably provided by their lawyers.

In wiretap transcripts, defendants routinely talk about ditching phones and getting new ones. They give out numbers of unregistered phones, and even discuss the possibility their phones are tapped.

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