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Police Wiretapped 2.27 million Conversations in `97


May-June 1998

In 1997, state and Federal judges authorized 1,186 wiretaps, of which 1,094 were activated, which recorded more than 2.27 million conversations among 216,000 individuals, according to the 1997 Wiretap Report by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The number of authorized wiretaps was a 3% increase over 1996 and is the highest since Congress legalized wiretapping and started requiring records of wiretaps in 1968 (Richard Willing, "Drug war fuels boom in use of wiretaps," USA Today, May 9, 1998; Richard Carelli, "Wiretap Requests Hit Record," Orange County Register, May 9, 1998).

Federal judges authorized 569 wiretaps and state judges authorized 617. The most orders were issued in New York (304). Federal judicial districts for Los Angeles, northern Illinois and southern Florida also reported large numbers. The taps were placed primarily on ordinary phones but increasingly on cellular phones, pagers, e-mail and fax machines. About three-quarters (73%) of the wiretaps were issued in narcotics investigations.

The procedure for law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant permitting a wiretap or dispensing with a warrant is spelled out in 18 U.S.C. 2518. In general, a warrant for a wiretap may not be ordered unless a judge finds that "normal investigative procedures have been tried and have failed or reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried or to be too dangerous" (18 U.S.C. 2518(3)(c)).

In April each year, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts must report to Congress concerning wiretaps (18 U.S.C. 2519(3)). Any person whose wire, oral or electronic communication is intercepted, disclosed or used in violation of the Wire Interception law can sue for damages.

Records show that only one wiretap warrant application has been denied in the past ten years. Arrests from wiretap evidence increased about 25% from 1996 but the conviction rate of cases with such evidence, 17%, was the lowest in the past ten years. "At the same time [wiretaps] are becoming far more intrusive they're becoming less useful, said David Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "What's supposed to be a last resort has become something [law enforcement] relies on."

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts - David Sellers, Public Relations, Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, 1 Columbus Circle, NE, Suite 7400, Washington, DC 20544, Tel: (202) 273-0107, Fax: (202) 273-2349.

Electronic Privacy Information Center - 666 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003, Tel: (202) 544-9240, Fax: (202) 547-5482, E-mail: <>, Web: <>.