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Wiretaps in US rose 19 percent in 2004

Judges approved 1,710 applications

WASHINGTON -- The number of court-authorized secret wiretaps across the country surged by 19 percent last year, records show. As law enforcement authorities tried to keep apace of technology favored by criminals, not a single application was denied.

State and federal judges approved 1,710 applications for wiretaps of wire, oral, or electronic communications last year, and four states -- New York, California, New Jersey, and Florida -- accounted for three out of every four surveillance orders, according to the Administrative Office of the US Courts. That agency is required to collect the figures and report them to Congress.

The numbers, released yesterday, do not include court orders for terror-related investigations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, which reached a record 1,754 warrants last year, according to the Justice Department.

In non-terrorist criminal investigations, federally approved wiretaps increased 26 percent in a year, to 730 applications, while state judges approved 980 wiretaps, an increase of 13 percent.

Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the figures show that old-fashioned law enforcement surveillance is catching up with increases in counterterrorism wiretaps. ''We're still seeing a huge trend toward increased surveillance," said Edgar.

Evan Barr, a former federal prosecutor in New York City, now in private practice, said the numbers reflect changes in the technology used by criminal suspects.

''Drug dealers now are making use not just of traditional cell phones but a variety of devices, including blackberries, pagers, and Nextels. So most likely these increased wiretap numbers simply reflect law enforcement's continuing efforts to keep pace with both the tactics and technology that is being used on the street," he said.

Officials said most of the applications, some 1,308, were for drug investigations, while racketeering or gambling wiretaps accounted for a combined 128 wiretaps around the country.

Homicides and assaults produced 48 wiretap orders.

Most of the wiretap applications, some 1,507, targeted portable devices.

By the end of the year, the surveillance had generated 4,506 arrests and 634 convictions.

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