Massachusetts legislators and law enforcement officials are calling for an expansion of state wiretap law to allow police to secretly record more suspects who are targeted in murder investigations and other violent crimes.
Under terms of a bill pending at the State House, authorities would still need a warrant to wiretap suspects, but the targets would not have to be members of a bona fide organized crime outfit, such as the Mafia, according to a summary of the legislation released on Sunday by the office of state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
“Our current wiretap law has not been updated since 1968; it’s like asking our police to continue on horses and buggies after criminals began driving around in cars,” Coakley said in a statement. “This bill is a common-sense step forward to keep our communities safe from gun and street violence, human trafficking, and other violent crimes.”
Coakley, along with police officials and lawmakers, is scheduled to brief reporters on the legislation on Monday.
The bill would also extend the length of a wiretap from 15 days to 30 days, which is consistent with federal law, the summary states.
In addition, it would update the definition of “wire communication” to clarify that the law covers “advances in communication technology, including cellphones, to ensure that all forms of wire communications are covered regardless of the ever-changing technological devices we see in the market,” the summary states.
Defense lawyers on Sunday said the current proposal could lead to abuses of power by the government.
“Wiretaps should be reserved for highly organized criminal groups that use sophisticated techniques to elude law enforcement,” said J.W. Carney Jr., a Boston attorney representing reputed gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
“This legislation will allow police to use wiretaps for crimes committed by a single individual,” Carney said. “They will be monitoring private conversations for weeks, and also be intruding on the privacy of the innocent person speaking to the suspect.”
The proposal comes after two justices on the state’s highest court urged legislators in April 2011 to change state wiretap law to expand police surveillance powers for investigations of violent street crime.
“The legislative inclusion of five words [in the current law], ‘in connection with organized crime,’ means that electronic surveillance is unavailable to investigate and prosecute the hundreds of shootings and killings committed by street gangs in Massachusetts, which are among the most difficult crimes to solve and prosecute using more traditional means of investigation,’’ Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court wrote in a concurring opinion in a Brockton murder case.
In that matter, the court found that a recording of a man who allegedly confessed to a drive-by killing was inadmissable, because he did not meet the criteria for being part of an organized criminal enterprise.
On Sunday, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, whose office frequently prosecutes gang-related homicides, hailed the pending bill, which is sponsored by two state representatives and a state senator.
“The state’s wiretap laws haven’t been updated since the days of La Cosa Nostra,” Conley said in a statement. “They need to be updated to reflect the changing nature of violent crime. Doing so would allow us to convict defendants with their own words and reduce the burden on civilian witnesses.”
Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston also said the proposed changes are necessary.
“Our officers should be able to utilize these surveillance tools to investigate violent crimes,” Menino said in a statement. “An update to the wiretap law is long overdue and these changes will go a long way in getting illegal guns, drugs, and harmful individuals off our streets and out of our neighborhoods.”
State Senator Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat and one of the bill’s cosponsors, also said in a statement that changes to the law are long overdue.
“This bill will update the laws to reflect major advances in communications technology,” Clark said. “It will give law enforcement an up-to-date tool to investigate and prosecute violent crimes and human, gun, and drug trafficking.”
But Boston defense lawyer Jeffrey Denner, although stressing that he had not yet read the bill, said he is troubled by any attempt to add categories of suspects who could be subject to a wiretap.
“This is an unbelievably slippery slope, and we’ve been moving in this direction . . . probably for the last decade,” Denner said. “And that causes a lot of us in the defense bar, and should cause a lot of people in the United States of America, great concern.”