The new Coakley bill, “An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law”, under a microscope

Want to know the details of what the new Coakley bill, An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law, really includes? Wonderful. I can already tell we’re going to be friends.

Here’s an advance hint: What do marijuana possession, annoying telephone calls, burglary, neglecting to depart a public assembly on the orders of police, failing to display the correct posters relating to the illegality of firearms and explosives in your school, and the sale of arrowheads used for hunting, have in common?

If you guessed “It isn’t legal in Massachusetts right now to take out an electronic wiretapping warrant for offenses this minor, but it would be under this bill”, then congratulations, you win the Grand Prize.

On, to a more detailed discussion!

There are three main points of this legislation:

1) To remove the requirement that an electronic wiretapping warrant be connected with organized crime, or indeed with serious crimes more generally.

2) To legalize mass interception of communications at telecommunications switching stations, rather than through individual wiretaps on individual phone numbers.

3) To double the length of an authorized wiretap, from 15 to 30 days.

A long-standing frustration of law enforcement in Massachusetts has been that the electronic wiretapping statute was drafted in response to the problem of organized crime specifically, rather than being devised to cover a certain set of the most serious crimes. So, in order to take out an electronic wiretapping warrant, law enforcement has first had to demonstrate that there is an ongoing investigation connected to organized crime, of which the wiretap would be a part.

From Digital Fourth’s analysis of nine US states (CT, FL, NJ, NV, NY, PA, RI, VA, WA), it is not unusual for the list of offenses to only include offenses characteristic of organized crime; it is unusual to require a prior demonstration that the specific offense under investigation is connected to organized crime. However, neither the AG nor the bill’s sponsors have yet been able to point to any case where a criminal was not brought to justice because of the lack of connection of his crime to organized crime, suggesting that this limitation on police activity has little actual effect on convictions.

Going beyond this, the bill before us implements a much broader list of offenses for which electronic wiretapping with a warrant is legal than is currently the case. We’re no longer talking about arson, rape, murder and witness intimidation in connection with organized crime. We’re talking about a wide array of offenses, down to the very minor ones listed above. Coakley proposes expanding the designated offenses to cover every possible firearms and drug offense, down to simple marijuana possession, and also every kind of illegal threat, harassment and hazing, or conspiracy to commit such crimes. This could be read as a response not only to the Newtown massacre and associated calls for gun control, but also to the sad cases of cyberbullying that Massachusetts has seen in its schools.

The most worrying new element in this bill is the conscious inclusion of language allowing wiretaps to be placed at phone companies’ switching stations. Let me show you what I mean.

Old language:

1. The term “wire communication” means any transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception

New language:

1. The term “wire communication” means any transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception, including the use of such connection in a switching station, furnished or operated by any person engaged in providing or operating such facilities for the transmission of such communications and shall include: any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system, but shall not include: (i) any communication made through a tone-only paging device; (ii) any communication from a tracking device, defined as an electronic or mechanical device which permits the tracking of the movement of a person or object; or (iii) electronic funds transfer information stored by a financial institution in a communications system used for the electronic storage and transfer of funds. 

Surveillance activists are well aware that one of the biggest surveillance-related cases of recent years has involved the activities uncovered by whistleblower Mark Klein, where the NSA installed an electronic intercept for all phone traffic at an AT&T switching station in San Francisco (Jewel v. NSA). The conscious inclusion of such language by Coakley here suggests that law enforcement in Massachusetts would like to be able to start doing such things under color of law. A ruling is still pending on this case, but it is hard to square such activities with the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that:

no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This “particularity” requirement is a settled part of Fourth Amendment law, and there is no question that in trying to legalize this practice, Coakley is opening the AG’s office to being sued on constitutional grounds, which could cost the Commonwealth a bundle.

The provision to double the length of an authorized wiretap is unsurprising, and is pretty much a matter of convenience for law enforcement. Here at Digital Fourth, we have obtained through public records requests a complete list of the electronic wiretaps taken out in Massachusetts by the AG’s office and DAs’ offices during 2011 (information on 2012 is being collected). Of the total of 16 warrants issued, 9 had to be renewed, though none appear to have had to have been renewed twice. Presumably this fact is motivating the proposal to extend the date. However, neither the AG’s office nor the DAs’ offices report any denials of renewal applications. This implies that a renewal takes effort on the part of the prosecutor, but that there is no plausible doubt that an application to renew, once received, will be denied. Therefore, we are once again out of the zone of “reducing the ability of prosecutors to get convictions” and back into the zone of “increasing administrative convenience for prosecutors”.

Thankfully, relative to prior years, the AG appears so far to have dropped her previous suggestion to expand the list of “designated offenses” to an array of financial crimes, down to kiting checks and violating codes of ethics. For the moment, there’s also no sign of her previous unconstitutional proposal to substitute after-the-fact “certificates” for proper warrants signed before the fact by a judge. However, the bill still has serious defects as presented.

Here at Digital Fourth, we believe that if electronic wiretapping warrants are to be legal, they should be restricted to very serious crimes. While philosophically the organized crime requirement seems outdated, in practice it doesn’t seem to affect convictions. What it does do is to impose a high bar on launching an electronic wiretapping investigation, and that high bar is useful in itself. We feel that it would be a waste of police resources to mount electronic wiretaps of peaceful activists, conduct mass surveillance of traffic at phone switching stations, or turn every insulting comment on a schoolkid’s Facebook page into a criminal matter, all of which this bill would allow. Any surveillance that moves away from a particularized target towards generalized suspicion, or that chills people’s freedom of speech, is constitutionally suspect. The AG should accept, just as the federal government should accept, that there are activities that they and we may not like, that cannot realistically be suppressed by the government without violating the Constitution. Legislators thinking of cosponsoring this legislation should likewise be aware of the major problems it presents.

2 Thoughts on “The new Coakley bill, “An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law”, under a microscope

  1. christy webb on December 9, 2013 at 9:34 am said:

    what is considered organized crime?

    • Alex Marthews on December 9, 2013 at 10:15 am said:

      Great question.

      “Organized crime” under the existing statute isn’t simply what we might think of as the Mafia or the Bulger gang. If a gang has some identifiable economic purpose (like dealing drugs, or a protection racket, or human trafficking), and there seems to be some sort of hierarchy where orders are taken and given, then it classes as “organized crime”.

      The proposed reforms arise out of the 2011 Tavares case, where a wiretap was disallowed in a murder case because the accused murderer was not part of an organized gang in this sense. However, using other evidence, the murderer was retried and convicted, and is serving a lengthy sentence. The AG’s office has been unable to point to any case where a guilty party is walking free because of the “organized crime” restriction. See for more details.

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