Saturday, April 27, 2013

Local police want to bypass DPS on wiretapping but rarely use labor-intensive tactic

Earlier, Grits complained at length about a bill passed out of the Texas Senate, SB 188, by Sen. Joan Huffman, expanding wiretapping authority and on Monday its House companion HB 530, by Rep. Allen Fletcher, will be heard by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. The legislation would let the six largest police departments and the Harris County Sheriff engage in wiretapping on their own authority. Under current law, when local prosecutors get wiretap orders they must be implemented by DPS officers. The argument by bill proponents last week, and in prior committee hearings, was that DPS was too overwhelmed to handle wiretapping duties. But here's a table Grits compiled of the total number of wiretapping requests by local Texas agencies since before the turn of the century.

Wiretap orders issued by
Texas state district judges: 1997-2011
2011: 2
2010: 1
2009: 0
2008: 2
2007: 4
2006: 2
2005: 4
2004: 0
2003: 4
2002: 2
2001: 1
2000: 0
1999: 4
1998: 5
1997: 0

Why do local agencies need this authority when right now they hardly ever use wiretaps? At last week's House Criminal Jurisprudence meeting there was a telling exchange when the committee heard essentially similar legislation to SB 188 from state Rep. Gene Wu. Committee member Matt Schaefer asked a Houston police detective, who said this bill would let him do more wiretaps, how many times HPD had requested a DPS wiretap last year. He replied that HPD had not requested any because they knew DPS was too "busy." DPS, however, has never turned down an agency that asked them to perform a wiretap if they've got the proper orders from their local judge. The argument seems to be, "If we didn't have to go through DPS we'd do more of them." But why? Can they credibly say that without having even tried going through the existing legal mechanisms?

The other big complaint was that, right now, local PDs often have to ask the feds for assistance when they need a wiretap. But so what? Is that really a terrible thing? Let the feds do their thing. They're a lot better equipped to do those sorts of labor-intensive investigations, anyway. But if Texas agencies aren't even using their current wiretapping authority, why expand it?

This bill amounts to a solution looking for a problem. If Houston PD had received judicial approval for a wiretap and DPS was unable to implement it, that'd be one thing. But if it's just to give them a leg up in some bureaucratic turf war with the feds, or to keep from having to involve DPS, those don't seem like very good reasons to let the big local PDs have this authority.

MORE (Monday, April 29): See written testimony I submitted to the committee against the bill.



Mike said...

Wiretapping is expensive and labor intensive no matter who does it. DPS participates in more federal wiretaps than they initiate at the state level.

Anonymous said...

Look at previous legislation authored by Joan Huffman. She's the nation's leading Nazi...

Anonymous said...

Here's the bills Huffman filed:

She doesn't want photos of cops who are investigated for child sex crimes made available to the public:

And she would close down websites that expose police officers who molest children:

Senator Huffman wants a full-blown Police State and is the single biggest threat to Civil Liberties in the state.

Soronel Haetir said...


I don't see that a low number of requests is particularly meaningful on its own. If the local agencies know that DPS will stall or be unpleasant about the wiretap orders in some other way I would expect those agencies to not bother making the request to the judge to begin with in many instances. I just don't see that chart of number of requests shedding any light on the DPS cultural response to such orders when they are in fact issued.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

SH, whatever DPS' "cultural response," whatever that means, their actual, real-world response has been to perform wiretaps whenever asked. If HPD doesn't ask because they don't want to share asset forfeiture money, for example, if they bust someone with a lot of assets, which is my guess at the real reason they don't request them more often, to me that's not a reason most taxpayers care about.

They can't both claim the current system is broken and also that they fail to investigate cases rather than even try to use it. Also, if the feds are doing them instead in the most serious cases, is that a reason for tremendous alarm? Not in my book, as long as the cases are being investigated. HPD's and DPD's turf war with DPS and the feds are none of my concern and IMO shouldn't concern the Criminal Jurisprudence committee.