Saturday, April 21, 2007

Wiretapping de-regulation a big waste: Texas judges approve few warrants for phone surveillance

I've written that Texas' proposed expansion of wiretapping authority is a solution looking for a problem, and here are the stats to prove it. SB 823 by Whitmire/Riddle would give the state's six largest police departments - Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso - authority to operate pen registers and cell-phone wiretapping equipment. Each department under the bill would be authorized to purchase their own wiretapping equipment and train their own officers to use it.

But according to wiretapping statistics reported annually to the Department of Justice, four of these six departments did not engage in a single wiretap between 1998 and 2005, the last year for which statistics are available. In no year did Texas judges approve more than five wiretaps, and a couple of years none were authorized in the entire state!

So why should local taxpayers in these six cities pay for training and equipment when wiretapping is so rarely used in Texas? Right now the Department of Public Safety manages all wiretaps statewide, and given the low volume involved - and the fact that most big city PDs aren't using wiretaps - it doesn't make a lot of sense to create redundant capacity at these six agencies.

Here are the last several years' statistics reported to the Department of Justice about Texas wiretapping:

Wiretapping in Texas
(1998 - 2005)


No. of Wiretaps




Burleston (2), Starr, Fort Bend





Harris (3), Bowie



Bexar, Lamar








Tom Green (3), Shelby



Nacogdoches (3), Potter (2)

Source: See Table 2 under these annual USDOJ wiretapping reports for Texas stats:


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the statistics reported to the USDOJ would be consistent and accurate. It seems that Texas Counties cannot manage to report racial profiling statistics with consistancy and accuracy despite having years to figure out how to do it.

This is bad legislation that is a waste of money and opens the door to a huge loss of civil liberties for all Texans.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I believe the data are accurate because right now wiretapping is centralized at DPS, they're relatively professional compared to the local yokels, and I'd say I have 99% confidence that they wouldn't misrepresent the numbers. That's a big reason I don't want the local PDs to get this technology and authority - I have no such confidence they'll report every use of the equipment or be as accountable as DPS.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they want to mimick the FBI and use illegal wiretaps indiscriminately to collect interesting information which they know they cannot use in court, but will tell them what's going on and help them find the weakest links for them to lean on and make into a snitches.

Going legit and asking for a warrant to wiretap would be the slow way to go, only to be used in an emergency.

Anonymous said...

I agree that current statistics are accurate. I am very concerned that this ligislation will dilute the protection Texans now have from unnecessary invasion of their right to privacy.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to Grits. This is a fantastic resource!

Might the statistics from the DOJ suggest that acquiring wiretaps for the police has been difficult when it went through the DPS? Might the low number of wiretaps be attributed to the obstacles set up by the current legislation that centralizes these wiretap operations?

DPS officials have to be present at wiretap operations right now. There is always a massive need to protect civil liberties and make sure rules are followed-- we're in Texas-- but does having a DPS guy physically present impact the level of professionalism?

Why wouldn't trained officers from local communities be able to do the same job? Wouldn't they get training to do these things?

I'm just curious. This is a Whitmire bill, which means even though it does constitute a dangerous decentralization of the department that will likely threaten the privacy of every Texan and set a dangerous precedent for the future, that it has legs.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine that legislation to increase the use of wiretapping in Texas is a good idea.

It will cost too much.

It is not a good idea to make it easier to violate the civil rights of Texans.

It is not likely to result in any improvement whatsoever in public safety because, if law enforcement needs wiretap information, they can get it now.

If the problem is that it is too difficult to get a wiretap set up, they can improve the process rather than decentralize judicial control.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@7:31 - two things: first, judges, not DPS, are the barrier to getting wiretaps. If a judge orders it, the DPS is called in to run it, so there's no extra difficulty implied or otherwise for local PDs. Boys like toys is basically their motivation here. Second, let's turn your question around - if in most years they won't use wiretaps, why should localities go to the trouble of training staff, buying equipment, and setting up in-house wiretap shops when DPS is already set up to do it?