Changing times and phones

Wiretapping: Disposable wireless phones foil law enforcement efforts, requiring update of state law.

January 06, 2002

MARYLAND'S wiretap laws need to be brought up to date to deal with cell phone technology that gives criminals the upper hand.

Under current law, investigators must get court permission for each phone line they wish to tap.

The applications for these taps require pages of affidavits and take a lot of time to process.

Meanwhile, drug dealers are buying cheap cell phones by the dozens and throwing them away after a few calls.

It's nearly impossible for authorities to get and keep a tap on such quickly disposable lines.

Changing the Maryland law to allow a judge to authorize a "roving" wiretap of all phones of a suspected person, not just a specific location, is a reasonable legal update. That's now allowed under federal law and in other states.

The intent of the law is not changed, nor is a suspect's privacy further compromised. Courts would still scrutinize wiretap applications for approval.

As Baltimore authorities have shifted their focus from street pushers to drug kingpins, wiretapping has become more important in investigations.

City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy cites wiretaps as instrumental in dismantling nine drug rings with international connections in the past two years.

Cell phone signals are not difficult to intercept, though pinpointing their exact location can be a problem.

The real hurdle for police and prosecutors is a law based on technology of 50 years ago and last updated in 1988.

Wiretaps are not the first resort of law enforcement. They are time-consuming and costly. They can easily run afoul of the law.

New technology will always make this already difficult law enforcement tactic even more challenging.

But when a criminal suspect can change cell phones as easily as socks, the state's wiretap law should reflect those new realities.

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