Monday, April 08, 2013

If it ain't broke ... no need to expand wiretap authority to local PDs

Grits has already decried the pointlessness and potential pitfalls of SB 188 expanding the list of Texas law enforcement agencies authorized to perform wiretapping to include the larger municipal PDs. That bill has now come over from the Senate and been referred to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. Let's hope, in that small-government bastion, proposals to expand the surveillance state won't go over quite as easily as in the Texas Senate. Rep. Allen Fletcher is carrying the House companion.

Local control has its place but IMO the proliferation of invasive surveillance technology isn't one of them. Presently, the Department of Public Safety is the only non-federal agency authorized to perform wiretaps in Texas and from 1997 to 2011 (see the annual reports), they were never asked to do so more than five times in a year, a high set back in 1998. Some years, as in 2009, the number was zero. (See the chart in this post.) Though I understand through the rumor mill 2012 saw a bump (the data has not yet been reported publicly), the bottom line is Texas prosecutors seldom request wiretaps. Bill proponents are full of stories about dangerous Mexican drug cartels, but surprisingly short on examples when they needed a wiretap and DPS or a judge wouldn't oblige them. There's just no documented need to expand the number of agencies performing wiretaps.

To me, it's better to keep wiretapping authority in one place - at DPS - to make it easier to regulate. For that matter, the same can be said for use of Stingrays and similar fake cell-tower devices - which employ man-in-the-middle attacks on cell-phone customers and essentially intercept their signals. Just like wiretapping equipment, state law should limit those tools to DPS and let the locals call in the state police - with a judicial order in hand - if and when they need that functionality. If the practice becomes decentralized, with local agencies training their own personnel to operate invasive surveillance equipment, the potential for abuse grows as does the difficulty of exercising meaningful oversight. The volume of wiretapping work just isn't high enough to warrant changing the law. If it's needed, let DPS do it.


Anonymous said...

If DPS can't wiretap any better than they test dope, I say give the locals a shot at it!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Given the problems over the years, e.g., at the Houston crime lab, I don't think that criteria would necessarily recommend the locals, either. Testing dope is done at high volumes in understaffed labs. Wiretapping in 2-3 cases per year statewide isn't really comparable.

Phillip Baker said...

I wonder what the numbers for requested warrants are. How many of the requested warrants were denied? I'm betting not many, given the incestuous nature of local justice systems. How many were granted after the fact? I fully agree, this is yet another loss of liberty and increase of government power and it is not needed.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Baker. Wiretaps r unofficially used all the time without warrants to take the authorities down their roads of investigations to confirm or to correct their course. Even if they don't use them in court doesn't mean they didn't obtain what they needed to build the case they want.