Wiretaps- An Invasion of Privacy?


Knoxville police, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local prosecutors have assembled a case which has left thirty-one (31) people facing drug charges related to dealing cocaine, marijuana, and pain pills. Authorities say it took two years of investigation and careful listening, to arrest the members of this drug network, which investigators say reached from East Tennessee to California. While wiretaps are nothing new for law enforcement, this investigation involved the first wiretap in Knoxville's history that was obtained as a result of a State Warrant as opposed to a Federal Warrant. Normally, when local law enforcement wants to use a wiretap they usually go through the Federal Courts for their warrant. This is especially true for large scale drug investigations primarily because of the tougher sentencing in Federal Courts. But with the recent changes in Tennessee State law, sentences for severe drug crimes have gotten much harsher. Knoxville District Attorney General Randy Nichols said that one of the main reasons they moved forward with the wiretap at the State level is because enough of the recent cases involved offenses such as selling drugs in school zones, making State prosecution worthwhile.

No matter how you look at it, a wiretap is an invasion of privacy but the legislature must strike a balance between an individual's right to privacy and society's legitimate concern with being protected from criminal activity. Law enforcement does not have free rein on how to use wiretaps and other electronic surveillance. In fact, the requirements for obtaining a wiretap or other form of electronic surveillance are very strict, but not always followed. Tennessee Law has more than 10 provisions governing the way law enforcement obtain and use wiretaps. The first barrier that law enforcement must overcome before they can listen in on your conversations is the probable cause requirement. This means that before they can begin listening they must get a warrant from a neutral and detached magistrate through a showing of probable cause. Even if law enforcement get over the probable cause stage and an order allowing a wiretap is issued, that order is only valid for thirty (30) days, once that time is up a new warrant must be issued and the process starts all over again. This does not mean that all wiretap warrants last thirty (30) days. The statute provides that the warrant should only be for the amount of time necessary to achieve the objective of the warrant and no longer. Further, law enforcement may not disclose every word of the conversations they intercept. In fact they are only allowed to disclose and use information which is related to the crime that is the subject of the wiretap. They must also show that a wiretap is necessary. A wiretap is only necessary if there are no other less intrusive ways of obtaining crucial information. Another way in which wiretaps are limited here in Tennessee is by limiting the crimes which can be investigated via wiretap. In Tennessee, law enforcement can only seek a wiretap to investigate certain criminal homicides, conspiracy to commit criminal homicide, serious gang related offenses and a host of serious drug crimes. It may not seem like it but the crimes for which a wiretap can be issued are extremely limited in Tennessee. The Federal courts allow for wiretaps under different circumstances but the requirements are equally if not more strict.

Because of how invasive wiretaps are on a citizen's privacy, the wiretap laws are complicated, technical, and difficult for the average citizen to understand. Because of the complicated nature of wiretaps and the fundamental right to privacy they implicate it is easy for law enforcement to error in their use of wiretaps causing a violation which could affect the outcome of the case. It is important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss whether the strict technicalities of the wiretap rules were followed in your specific case. If you believe you are the subject of a wiretap, or if you have questions about how wiretaps work, please feel free to contact The Bowlin Law Firm at your convenience.