Can local cops monitor cell phone conversations in other states? State's highest court says yes

May 02, 2012|By Peter Hermann

The case before the Maryland Court of Appeals is straightforward. Detectives in Montgomery County got a warrant to intercept cell phone calls of a suspected drug dealer. They caught him in the act and made an arrest, finding marijuana in his suitcase.

A jury convicted the man and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

But he argued that the cops exceeded their authority. The telephone conversation the cops picked up was placed in Virginia, and was made to another man in another state. The warrant was for Maryland.

The state's wiretap laws date back to long before you could make a call without a cord, and have come under fire for their use by citizens recording cops on the job to law enforcement investigating suspected criminals.

But the laws simply don't keep up with technology.

"The widespread use and highly mobile nature of cellular phones, especially in the circumstances of drug distribution rings, presents a unique challenge for courts in determining the proper jurisdiction for acting on applications for ex parte wiretap orders," the judges wrote.

In this case, the Court of Appeals ruled that the intercept was lawful [read the full opinion]. It doesn't matter where the call was made or placed,t he judges said, noting the police "listening post" was in Maryland. And, the court ruled, even if the cell phone was physically in Virgina, the call was intercepted in Maryland.

"Because 'interception' is the tipping point of the statute, it provides naturally the jurisdictional anchor for an ex parte order authorizing law enforcement officers to intercept wire, oral, or electronic communications," the ruling states.

Two judges disagreed.

"Its plain language requires that, for lawful interception to occur, the communication device from which the wire, oral or electronic communication is to be intercepted, must be within the state," their dissent reads. It continues that the majority's ruling allows a state authority to wireta with "neither boundaries nor standards. Its reach could be anywhere in the United States and, indeed, the world."

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