Attorney General Martha Coakley feels like some state laws are “stuck in time.”
That’s why the elected official is looking to change the current wire-tapping rules to bring Massachusetts up to date in terms of how officials combat gang violence and drug crime.
During a press conference Monday morning, Coakley, flanked by police and mayors from around the Bay State, said wire-tapping laws have not been updated since 1968, and due to a significant change in technology since then, the current ordinances have hindered investigations.
With criminals using cell phones rather than landlines, it has become harder to target crime.
“Not only has there been a huge change in the reality of criminal activity…but the realities of electronic communication have left [law officials] trying to fight with one hand behind their back,” she said. “It’s like saying they should ride on horse when criminals have taken on automobiles.”
Coakley, along with Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, Representative John Keenan, and Senator Katherine Clark, filed legislation that would “make necessary changes to Massachusetts wiretap law to bring it up-to-date with 21st century technology.”
Some of the biggest changes the current law would see, if passed by legislators this session, would include updates to the definition of “wire communication” to clarify that the statute covers advances in communication technology, including cell phones.
It would also remove the requirement that only “organized crime” offenses could spur a request for wire-tapping allowing for additional crimes such as rape and human trafficking, gaming, money laundering, and enterprise crime for which a wiretap may be requested.
Lastly, the proposed bill calls for an extension of the wiretap term, from 15 days to 30 days.
Prosecutors would still need to get approval from a Superior Court judge before authorization for a wiretap is issued, however.
“If we want to investigate and prosecute successfully, some of the most dangerous [individuals] on the streets, we need to update this law,” Coakley said.
But the legislation doesn’t bode well with those concerned about the overall privacy of Massachusetts residents.
According to a statement sent to BostInno from the American Civil Liberties Union, we should be “very, very wary of law enforcement claims that it needs more and broader powers to listen in on our private conversations.”
“Let’s call this what it is. It’s not an ‘update.’ It’s a broad expansion of the wiretap law to allow law enforcement to listen in to private conversations for virtually any investigative purpose,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Wolfe said calls for updates are often masked by bigger changes.
“In this case, there’s a lot of talk about guns and gangs, but the proposal would also allow police to eavesdrop when pursuing the most minor of drug offenses,” he said. “It needs a very, very careful look to peel back the rhetoric to find out what freedoms we’d be giving away.”
Coakley countered that argument, however, saying eavesdropping won’t be the focus of the law change.
“It won’t be the case to listen to more people on their phones,” she said. “That will never be the case.”