State officials, law enforcement: Revamp Massachusetts wiretap law


PITTSFIELD -- State officials and law enforcement agencies say the nearly 40-year-old wiretapping law needs to be revamped to include new technology in order to investigate serious crimes.

Attorney General Martha Coakley this week proposed a bill that alters the law's definition of "organized crime" to include groups such as dangerous youth gangs, drug dealers or human trafficking networks.

Coakley described the bill as a common sense approach to updating a decades-old law.

"It's really like saying, ‘We're going to ask our local police to still ride on horses while criminals have taken over automobiles,'" she said at a briefing on the legislation.

The proposal would also extend the length of a wiretap from 15 days to 30, in line with federal law, and modernize the definition of "wire communication" to include wireless communication on cellphones.

Coakley pointed to a 2011 murder conviction that was overturned by a Massachusetts judge because of a wiretap deemed illegal because the case didn't involve organized crime.

"I'm unsure of the last time we had a report that La Cosa Nostra fired a round in the city of Boston," said Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Daniel Linskey. "But we had a significant takedown of violent youth gangs just last week."

Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, one of only 12 people in the state that can request a wiretap, said while he agreed with the Coakley's bill, it didn't necessarily address future technologies.

"The language that's being proposed, defining communication isn't forward thinking enough," he told The Eagle. "[The district attorneys] are going to propose language that would include all [telephone] types of communication being used now and in the future."

Capeless said the proposal wouldn't include access to social networking sites, such as Facebook, as that process, as well as requests to monitor and utilize other online communication is handled differently.

Critics have raised questions about privacy and the possibility that police and other law enforcement agencies could abuse expanded wiretapping authority, but Capeless said there's "a great misconception about a wiretap order."

"There are only 12 people allowed to file for wiretapping," he said. "The attorney general and the 11 district attorneys. This isn't something I, or we, take lightly. I personally review each order and ensure it's necessary. [Wiretapping orders] are only granted when all other investigative means have fail. That has to be demonstrated before you can get an intercept order."

Similar efforts to revise the law have fallen short, including last year when the Senate attached it to a bill revamping the state's sentencing laws but the House did not. But Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has signaled his willingness to back the measure this time around.

The district attorneys also want to address what types of crimes wiretapping or "intercept orders" can be used to include sexual assaults, human trafficking, child rape and other violent crimes, Capeless said.

"There's very real reasons to do this," Capeless said. "The proposed legislation isn't going to make it any easier to obtain a wiretap, but it allows us to go after a greater range of criminal activity in order to protect the public."

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