Phone tap law is sought

Measure is needed to cut drug trade, Jessamy contends

Save time, paperwork

ACLU is concerned about possible civil rights violations

January 04, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Saying that electronic surveillance is the only way to dismantle big-time drug operations, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy proposed legislation yesterday that would make it easier for police to tap phone lines.

Jessamy sat beside a collection of 22,000 documents at a news conference and explained that it was the paperwork necessary to obtain court approval to tap 15 different phones during a drug investigation. Each time police needed to tap a different line, they had to fill out hundreds of pages of documentation that took from three to seven days to complete.

If the legislation is enacted, the amount of paperwork would be cut by half or more, freeing police to move more quickly while investigating cases, she said.

"We need to step up to the plate," Jessamy said. "Technology has advanced dramatically in the past 10 years, and the laws have not kept up. Criminals in Baltimore City are using every technological advancement to their advantage. We're asking that our laws be brought in line with the criminals."

The flip side of that, says the American Civil Liberties Union, is the potential for civil rights violations.

"We're going to carefully monitor the legislation," said Maryland ACLU spokesman Dwight H. Sullivan. "It's an issue that has major civil liberties implications."

If it is easier for police to tap a phone, he said, then it is easier for them to overhear something they shouldn't.

"Let's say you convince a judge I'm involved in criminal activity. I'm not the only person who uses my phones," Sullivan said. "If you're listening to an ACLU conversation with a client, that can include lawyers talking to criminal suspects. Or someone about to sue the police department."

Jessamy said wiretapping is a crucial tool.

"We can't dismantle major drug operations with street arrests," she said. "Electronic surveillance is the only way to dismantle major drug organizations from the middle and the top."

Maryland's wiretap statutes require more judicial oversight and offer less flexibility than those of most other states, and are more stringent than federal law. They were last updated in 1988.

Criminals commonly take advantage of the law by buying cellular phones in bulk, making sure to use one line for no more than a few days.

As the current law reads, investigators must reapply to a judge each time they want a warrant to listen to a new line.

Jessamy wants judges to be able to grant a "roving" wiretap, allowing investigators to apply once for the warrant and, if they want to tap a different line, file a simple amendment for the judge's approval.

In addition to the roving wiretap, the legislation includes broader definitions of some technological terms, such as "wire communications." That would allow police in Maryland to tap cordless telephones, something that currently is not allowed under state law, although investigators regularly get around it because of a more liberal federal law.

"It's an unenforceable law," Jill J. Myers, chief of the wiretap unit in Jessamy's office, said of the prohibition against tapping cordless phones. "We want our books to reflect what the real law is."

Other proposed changes include extending the deadline for when investigators must tell suspects that they have been the subjects of wiretaps, and extending the amount of time police are permitted to tap a line.

Currently, police are permitted to tap a line for 30 days, and then must obtain a new judicial order to continue for another 30. The new law would allow investigators to file for 30-day extensions, a simpler procedure.

Myers also wants to allow a single judge to have jurisdiction over all the wiretaps in a case, regardless of where the suspect travels within the state. Existing law gives circuit judges control over wiretaps only in their jurisdictions.

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