Indiana wants OK to monitor cellphones

Outdated law limits law enforcement to land lines. New bill would permit judges to authorize wiretaps of cellphones, email.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

Indiana's wiretap law is dreadfully in need of updating, the state police and prosecutors say, and they're pushing a bill that would allow them to get wiretaps on cellphones and email, The Indianapolis Star reports. Groups supporting the measure testified at legislative hearings yesterday.

The existing wiretap law has been used three times since it took effect in 1990, said Lt. Todd Smith, a State Police staff attorney. It has collected dust because it allows authorities to intercept only land lines, and then only in drug-related cases. That's a problem, because drug rings and other criminal operations have all but abandoned traditional telephones.

"We might as well not have a law the way it is presently written," said Steve Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

The bill passed the state Senate 46-1, with only Democratic Sen. Tim Skinner dissenting. He objected to the broad, open-ended language in the bill.

"It just comes back to rights and liberties and how precious those are, and how careful we need to be about how we hand those out to police authorities," said Skinner, who teaches high school government.

Sen. Brandt Hershman, the Republican who carried the bill in the Senate, would not give police carte blanche. As with other warrants, a judge's permission to initiate an intercept is still required, and police must show other methods have failed.

Indiana now has the technology to do such intercepts thanks to a $500K federal grant. "If we get the phone number, and a judge signs an affidavit, we can dial it in and be up immediately," said Smith, the State Police staff attorney.

Clearly there is a need for a more modern authorization. As shown on the popular show "The Wire," and documented in the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, drug gangs increasingly use pre-paid cell phones, call-forwarding and phones with "walkie-talkie" functions to try to prevent law enforcement from listening in.

In 2005, 91 percent of wiretaps initiated by federal, state and local authorities involved portable devices. Courts authorized 1,773 intercepts nationwide that year, the report says. The average intercept recorded 107 people, with 22 percent of their communication deemed incriminating.

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