Officials urge tougher state wiretapping law; highlight impact on reducing gun violence

01/10/2013 BOSTON, MA Attorney General Martha Coakley (cq) speaks during a press conference held at the Attorney General's offices in Boston. Attorney General Martha Coakley (cq) is suing the operators of a wedding videography business named SureShot (cq) after they failed to provide $75,000 worth of videos to their clients. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Coakley spoke at a news conference earllier this month. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

The state’s nearly four-decades-old wiretapping law needs to be updated in order to give police and prosecutors more muscle to clamp down on gun violence, a group of legislators, law enforcement officials, and mayors said today.

They said they were pushing for “critical and long-overdue” changes in a bill filed today in the Legislature. The bill would expand the scope of electronic surveillance, which is currently limited to organized crime cases, to cases involving drugs and guns, child pornography, human trafficking, and money laundering.

The bill would also modernize the definition of “wire communication” in the law to include wireless communication on cellphones, Attorney General Martha Coakley said. And it would extend the length of a wiretap from 15 days to 30 days, in line with federal law.

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The current wiretapping law was enacted in 1968 with an emphasis on organized crime. Multiple speakers at a news conference this morning at Coakley’s office in downtown Boston stressed that that approach was outdated and that Boston’s crime scene had changed.

“I’m unsure of the last time we’ve had a report La Cosa Nostra fired a round in this city,” said Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Daniel Linskey.

“As a former federal prosecutor, I have direct experience with the limitations of the current wiretap statute in Massachusetts,” New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said in a statement. “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 American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts was skeptical about the proposed legislation.

“Let’s call this what it is,” said ACLU spokeswoman Gavi Wolfe. “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.”

Coakley referenced the recent shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the threat that gun violence poses to children when asked why the law should be changed now. She also mentioned a 2011 murder conviction that was overturned by a Massachusetts judge because of a wiretap that was deemed illegal because the case did not involve organized crime.

The group also stressed that the law contained “safeguards” against “government overreach.” Coakley emphasized that probable cause that a crime is being committed must be shown before a wiretap can be implemented.

“The history of expanding this kind of power advises caution,” Wolfe said. “When law enforcement seeks new ways to investigate people’s private activities, they talk about the need for a narrow ‘update’ and quietly propose major 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. It needs a very, very careful look to peel back the rhetoric to find out what freedoms we’d be giving away.”

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