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Governor Moves to Update, Expand Massachusetts’ Outdated Wiretap Law

January 21, 2022 by Dan McCue
Governor Moves to Update, Expand Massachusetts’ Outdated Wiretap Law

BOSTON — Massachusetts’ wiretap statute, adopted in 1968 as a tool to combat organized crime, is now woefully out of date; it needs a major revision to better equip law enforcement for the realities of the 21st century, the state’s governor said on Friday.

“As technology evolves and the public safety landscape changes, so too should the tools we use to keep our communities safe,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a press release. 

“The commonsense changes to the wiretap statute we are again proposing today would finally update this 53-year-old statute to recognize that law enforcement should be able to use the same tools to solve a murder committed because of racial hatred or gang affiliation that they use to solve a murder committed in connection with organized crime,” said the Republican governor who has held the office since 2015.

On Friday, the Baker administration re-filed legislation it first proposed in 2017, expanding the authority of law enforcement to use wiretaps and secret recordings to investigate certain serious offenses that have no connection to organized crime, such as murder, rape and possession of explosive devices. 

For investigations connected to organized crime, the bill updates the list of offenses for which law enforcement may use these tools, eliminating some less serious offenses and adding some more serious ones that were not established in statute in 1968, such as trafficking in human beings and firearms.

“The current limits on the use of this technology needlessly limit law enforcement from investigating crimes that are just as damaging to victims and our commonwealth as those associated with organized crime,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in the same release. 

“This legislation would help us better prevent crimes like human trafficking, sexual assault and other offenses that have significant negative impacts on our communities,” Polito said.

The existing language of the state wiretap statute provides that electronic surveillance may only be employed when an offense is committed “in connection with organized crime,” phrasing which has dramatically restricted the commonwealth’s ability to solve difficult cases, the officials said. 

Additional provisions of the legislation would:

  • Update definitions to reference electronic communications not in use in 1968, including wireless, satellite, and cellular communications.
  • Explicitly cover communications between out-of-state parties regarding an in-state crime.
  • Explicitly authorize Massachusetts courts to issue orders to out‑of‑state companies to implement court-ordered monitoring.
  • Explicitly authorize law enforcement to use contractors, such as translators, to monitor communications.
  • Require that law enforcement obtain an ordinary warrant for interception of information that is not the content of communications rather than a special wiretap warrant.
  • Extend the amount of time that a court may authorize interception before requiring a renewal of a warrant so that, in appropriate cases, law enforcement need not seek renewals as frequently.
  • Exempt use of police body-worn cameras and cruiser-mounted cameras by readily-identifiable law enforcement personnel from the statute, so that state law does not stand in the way of police departments that wish to equip their officers with these devices. 

“In 1968, the wiretap law was enacted to help law enforcement and prosecutors combat the violence perpetrated by organized crime, providing a vital solution to a 20th century problem,” said state Public Safety and Security Secretary Terrence Reidy. 

“Five decades later, the challenges facing law enforcement have evolved. The ability to tackle today’s criminal threats, including gang-related homicides and human trafficking, demand contemporary solutions and an updated wiretap law that meets the needs of the 21st century,” Reidy said.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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