AG Coakley Stresses Importance of Update to Wiretap Law in Testimony to Legislature
Highlights Need for Update to Law to Prevent and Prosecute Gun Violence, Other Violent Crimes
BOSTON – Testifying before the Legislature today, Attorney General Martha Coakley stressed the importance of updating the Massachusetts wiretap interception statute to help combat street, gang and gun violence and modernize an outdated law to better address the public safety challenges of the 21st century. In January, AG Coakley and a coalition of legislators, mayors, and law enforcement filed legislation to update the state’s wiretap law.
“An update to the state wiretap law is critical to ensuring public safety and allowing law enforcement to effectively pursue criminal investigations, including those involving gun and gang violence,” AG Coakley said. “The costs of inaction are continuing to give some of the most violent offenders – murderers, gang members, gun traffickers and human traffickers – a leg up on our ability to take them off our streets and protect victims. I want to thank sponsors Chairwoman Katherine Clark, and Chairmen O’Flaherty and Keenan, as well as our law enforcement and community partners, for their support of this bill.”
In her testimony before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, AG Coakley stressed that updating the wiretap law will help keep communities safe from violent gangs and those who illegally sell and use guns. She also said it will help to better investigate other criminal enterprises such as human traffickers.
In addition, AG Coakley emphasized the important safeguards already in place that require judicial approval and lengthy affidavits documenting why a warrant is needed to investigate alleged criminal activity. She also emphasized that the use of wiretaps is uncommon. According to the AG’s testimony, between the 11 District Attorneys and the AG’s Office, there were just 17 state wiretaps executed in total in 2012.
The bill, An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law, filed in January and sponsored by Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose), Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea), and Representative John D. Keenan (D-Salem), would update and modernize the Massachusetts wiretap law for the first time since 1968.
“Gun violence affects our communities every single day. And just as violent criminals will use every tool in their own arsenal, we must make sure that law enforcement has the necessary tools to stop them, while ensuring judicial oversight and the protection of civil liberties,” said Senator Clark. “This bill represents a balanced approach for the digital age.”
“Today is the first step in the process of bringing our wiretapping laws into the 21st century,” stated House Judiciary Chairman Eugene L. O’Flaherty. “I look forward to analyzing today’s testimony on this important issue and working with the Attorney General and my colleagues in the Legislature to update our statutes to assist law enforcement by giving them the necessary tools to investigate and prosecute criminal enterprises.”
During her testimony, AG Coakley was joined by Representative Keenan, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, and Chief Steve Mazzie, President of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs Association, who also offered testimony in support of the bill.
“As communications technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, we must provide law enforcement the necessary tools to keep up with advances in criminal enterprise and changes in criminal behavior,” said State Representative John Keenan (D-Salem). “Not surprisingly, illegal activity has moved beyond the traditional landline telephone and into the wireless world we now know. This bill logically brings law enforcement into the 21st century, preserving appropriate judicial protection and oversight, while allowing law enforcement to do its job effectively.”
“As a former federal prosecutor, I have direct experience with the importance of wiretap recordings to take down dangerous criminals,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell. “These updates, most significantly expanding the list of covered crimes, will go a long way toward strengthening the Commonwealth's hand in investigating and prosecuting the kinds of crimes that affect cities across Massachusetts, including New Bedford.”
“The Major City Police Chief's Association proudly endorses the legislation filed on January 18 by Representatives Eugene O'Flaherty of Chelsea and John Keenan of Salem in the House of Representatives and Senator Katherine Clark of Melrose in the Senate on behalf of Attorney General Martha Coakley,” said Chief Steve Mazzie, President of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs Association. “There is no doubt that significant updates to this current legislation are desperately needed to keep pace with the ever changing methods of communication in today's society as well as to provide the necessary tools to contend with the current behavioral patterns and trends exhibited by many of the major criminal enterprises operating in many of the major cities and towns in our Commonwealth.”
An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law makes needed changes to the Massachusetts wiretap law to ensure that it keeps pace with technology used by criminal enterprises now and in the future. By updating the law to explicitly incorporate new and future technologies, the legislation seeks help law enforcement to effectively investigate crimes including homicides, illegal firearms, gang violence, human trafficking operations, narcotics distribution networks and other violent criminal activity.
AG Coakley also pointed out that an update to this statute was made more urgent after the SJC’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Tavares, which said that under current law wiretaps must involve organized crime and could not be used to investigate and prosecute many shootings and killings committed by street gangs. As a result of this decision, the SJC urged an update to this law.
In her testimony, AG Coakley clarified that the bill does not change the many procedural and judicial safeguards related to wiretaps that are already in place. Under the proposed legislation, as with the current law, any wiretap must be requested and signed by either the elected Attorney General or District Attorney and then authorized by a Superior Court judge.
As part of the many safeguards in place, the lengthy affidavits requesting the use of a wiretap must spell out the specific acts and circumstances relied upon to support the warrant. Wiretaps can only be authorized after probable cause has been proven and after all other investigative techniques have failed or are likely to fail. In addition, only conversations with direct correlation to the crime are permitted and a judge can terminate the wiretap at any time.
The updates proposed in the legislation modernize the definition for “wire communication” to clarify that the statute covers advancements in communication technology to ensure that all forms of wire communications are covered regardless of the ever-changing nature of technological devices. While these forms are already covered by the law, the new legislation would reinforce this fact. The legislation also includes the crimes of human trafficking, gaming, child pornography, money laundering, and enterprise crime in the list of crimes for which a wiretap may be sought. Additionally, the bill extends the possible term of a wiretap to 30 days, from 15 days currently, which is consistent with federal law.
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the Massachusetts Municipal Association also submitted written testimony in support of the legislation. Excerpts from that testimony are as follows:
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino
“The state already has a high standard for ensuring that wiretap investigations do not infringe upon people’s personal liberties. In fact, wiretaps can only be authorized by a judge after an exhaustive report of how other traditional investigative tactics have proven to be unsuccessful. This legislation sustains these safeguards, while ensuring reasonable updates to the law.”
Geoffrey C. Beckwith, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association
“While this common-sense modernization expands the eligible communication technology and the types of crimes for which law enforcement may seek a wiretap, it in no way lowers the high burden that law enforcement must meet to obtain judicial authorization for a wiretap specific to a criminal investigation. The bill maintains the same evidentiary burden that must now be met by law enforcement seeking a wiretap, but brings the law up to date to keep pace with the changes that have occurred in technology and society over the past 45 years.”