Anyone who has seen The Wire knows that wire-tapping can be an effective way to catch criminals, specifically those involved in gang and drug trade activity. Lawmakers in Massachusetts are looking to make life imitate art with a new bill that would expand the wire-tapping powers of the police.
Since the 1960s, Massachusetts wire-tapping laws have limited wire-tapping to activity that fits the profile of a continuing conspiracy among highly organized and disciplined groups that are engaged in criminal offenses supplying illegal goods and services.
This model was created to catch organized crime, such as the Mafia, in Massachusetts. However, with the emergence of new technology and new systems of crime, many lawmakers believe a more expansive wire-tapping law is necessary.
The bill, sponsored by Attorney General Martha Coakley and the co-chairs of the Legislature’s public safety committee, specifically removes the organized crime requirement and updates the definition of wire communication to explicitly include cell phones.
This move comes after Justices Gants and Cowin of the Supreme Judicial Court stated in 2011 that electronic surveillance is unavailable as an investigative tool for a large share of the murders and shootings committed by street gangs. Electronic surveillance of gangs is useful because gangs are known to intimidate witnesses, often leaving the Commonwealth with little evidence against them.
However, their organizational structures often place them outside the scope of the wiretap law because they operate in a much looser or less traditional way than the Mafia. This new law would lessen the burden police face in trying to gather evidence of gang activity without the ability to conduct wiretaps.
Concerns About Civil Liberties
Not everyone is eager to expand the surveillance powers of the police, though. The ACLU of Massachusetts stated that expanding wire-tapping under the proposed law would allow police to eavesdrop on private conversations for nearly any investigative purpose. While updating antiquated laws is necessary, expanding wire-tapping powers may not be the best way to combat crime in Massachusetts. Infringing on citizens’ Constitutional rights to privacy is not something lawmakers should take lightly.
Overzealous laws aimed at stopping crime can sometimes infringe on the rights of innocent citizens. Fortunately, this law is aimed at serious felonies, including murder and illegal use of firearms. Additionally, getting approval for a wiretap is difficult work in Massachusetts. Police are required to first try traditional methods of investigation before they are allowed to ask a judge to approve a wiretap. The judge must find that there is sufficient cause to target the suspect, and that there is no other way to obtain the evidence than to tap his or her phone. Under this new law, police are not relieved of their duty to show they have exhausted traditional investigative methods before seeking wiretap authority.