In the age of increased surveillance and technology, prosecutors use wiretapping to gather evidence to use in court.
Wire taps are commonly used to investigate white collar crimes, homicide and kidnapping. However, the most common use of a title 3 wiretap is in the investigation and prosecution of the illegal drug trade. At the same time, wiretapping laws require investigators to jump through a series of procedural hoops, and if they fail to comply with the strict wiretap warrant requirements, it may lead to dismissal of the case.
If you suspect that you are being investigated via a wiretap, or if a case has been brought against you that includes evidence obtained through wiretapping, you have options. In the interest of protecting privacy, state and federal laws exist to guide exactly how the police and prosecutors can collect evidence through surveillance.
Wiretapping is when a third-party secretly monitors communications in order to investigate an involved party. The image that comes to mind most commonly is intercepted phone calls or recorded, in-person conversations. In reality, wiretapping laws apply to any wire, oral, or electronic communication that’s intercepted.
Wiretaps can be used in the investigation of murder, kidnapping, drug dealing and any other crime “dangerous to life, limb, or property” punishable by more than one year’s imprisonment. However, for wire or oral intercepts, however, they are limited to investigations of a long and wide‐ ranging list of specific crimes. 18 U.S.C. § 2516.
Each state has different laws about recording another person without their consent. Some states require that both the recording party and the party being recorded know that their conversation is being recorded – these are known as two party consent states. Arizona, on the other hand, is a one party consent state which means that you are not required to obtain someone’s permission prior to recording them.
The exception of to the one party consent state rule applies when a party surreptitiously records another party in a state of undress or in a location where one would expect to undress (bathroom, locker room for example). The other exception to this rule, applies when the government (police) is attempting to listen and record your conversations. Under these conditions the police must first obtain a warrant and an order from a court for a title 3 wiretap.
The application for a State wire tap must first be authorized by the Attorney General, Assistant Attorney General or the principal prosecuting attorney of any State. 18 U.S.C. § 2516(1)-(2). Noticeable absent in the federal statute is the use of an Assistant District Attorney or Deputy County Attorney as utilized in Maricopa County. Failure to obtain the required approvals can result in suppression.
Each application must include a specific statutory statement of information which includes the following information with particularity:
Unlike other investigations, wiretaps have an extra layer and require a specialized warrant. In that warrant application, the agency must convince the court that phone call interceptions are necessary because all other forms of information gathering have failed to provide law enforcement the information they need. The process law enforcement must show the court is commonly known as “exhaustion.” Examples of techniques that law enforcement must first “exhaust” prior to obtaining a wiretap include:
Once law enforcement has begun listening to phone calls there are certain instances that require them to stop listening. Examples of intercepted communication that law enforcement generally cannot listen to include:
SIDE NOTE: Privileged calls can be listened to if they are in furtherance of the investigation. For example, if the attorney is assisting in the criminal activity rather than giving legal advice. It’s also worth noting that court’s tend to give law enforcement more leeway on minimization early in the investigation but will likely require more strict adherence to minimization requirements later in the intercept.
While calls are being intercepted pursuant to the wiretap, law enforcement is often required to provide the court with ongoing reports as to the authorized objective and the need for continued interception. The interval of these reports is determined by the judge but are normally required at between 10 and 15 days after each each application and order. A.R.S § 13-3010(K); 18 U.S. Code § 2518(6)
Interception of calls via a wiretap can last no longer than 30 days. Furthermore, once the investigating body has obtained the information sought in the application the wire must be terminated. If instead, during the interception period, evidence is obtained that leads to further investigation, law enforcement can apply for an extension. Police may apply for an unlimited number of extensions provided new evidence is being produced.
Within ten days after the termination of the authorized interception, the recordings shall be made available to the judge who issued the order and shall be sealed under the judge’s directions. Failure to seal evidence requires a “satisfactory explanation” in order for the evidence to be used. While extensions may be granted, each order’s evidence should be sealed in order to comply with state and federal statutes. A.R.S § 13-3010(H).
This information is commonly obtained after a crime has been committed. For instance, at a murder scene, police may have a suspect and obtain a warrant in attempt to place the suspect’s phone near the scene of the crime. Police can also obtain warrants after a crime has been committed to determine the location of all phones near a particular cell tower. Using this dragnet approach, police can obtain a warrant to detail all phones that were near a specific cell tower on a specific date and time to develop a suspect list.
In the midst of an ongoing investigation, police can also obtain a live view of a specific phone number’s call and text history as well as application information (social media use). Known as a pen registry and trap and trace, this information allows police to track a specific phone and view in real time the call and text history. This information is often used for probable cause prior to obtaining an official wiretap.
The cell detail records obtained from cell phone providers will not include the content of a call or text message but will only give the date, time, location of the device and the phone numbers communicating with one another. In order intercept a specific message or call, police must obtain a wiretap.
If you phone has a fingerprint lock or facial recognition to unlock the device, police may hold the phone to your face of place your finger on the phone in order to unlock the device. This practice is normally found to be constitutional as you have no right privacy concerning your fingerprints or facial identity. If instead, you have a numeric password, you have a fifth amendment right to refrain from speaking and providing police your password.
If you decline to allow police to search your cell phone they may obtain a warrant and use a software to extract the data from your phone. The software most commonly used is called cellebrite software. This software allows forensic technicians to extract the data from your phone. Information which can be extracted using cellebrite software includes:
Attorneys with Feldman & Royle represented one of the targets of a 30-person incitement after an extensive drug trafficking investigation. Evidence obtained through a wiretap alleged our client was the head of a distribution ring with evidence of the sale of more than 400 lbs. of methamphetamine over a 90-day period. To make matter worse, our client had prior felony convictions for previous drug sales.
Despite being exposed to substantial prison time, we were successful in challenging the validity of the sealing documents used during the wiretap. As a result of our defense investigation and substantive motions filed, our client was granted probation despite early plea agreements that called for a long prison sentence.
Our client was indicted along with the target, who was her husband, and 17 other co-defendants. The bulk of the evidence against our client was obtained using a wiretap. Our client was facing a mandatory prison sentence, if convicted. Adding to her risks, our client was a permanent legal resident and a criminal conviction for a drug crime would inevitably lead to her deportation.
However, in reviewing the evidence against our client, attorneys with Feldman & Royle discovered that the phone calls which made up the bulk of the evidence against her were in violation of mandatory minimization requirements. In order to avoid jeopardizing the validity of the entire wiretap, the prosecution allowed our client to plead guilty to a low-level misdemeanor with a stipulation to probation. Our client successfully completed probation and obtained citizenship in the United States.
While state and federal laws prescribe the method of obtaining judicial approval of a wiretap application, the truth is that the process in some cases is little more than a rubber stamp approval of an application by law enforcement. As a result, wiretaps are often obtained in situations where less intrusive methods of gathering information are available. Wiretap orders are also regularly issued where the scope of the wiretap is overly broad, thereby infringing on the rights of a host of people who are not even suspects or the object of a criminal investigation.
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is that as a general matter, wiretap applications are approved in 99% or more of the cases in which they are sought. No wonder law enforcement officials consider wiretaps to be their ace in the hole.
This is an issue that depends upon the circumstances of each case. Most wiretaps, however, remain in effect for longer than you would expect. Indeed, the average length of a wiretap is more than five weeks. In addition, a single wiretap order could result in thousands of intercepted communications.
A wiretap can involve any electronic or wire communication, but more than 95% of the applications seek to target cell phones and other portable communication devices.