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editorial

Proposed new wiretap law strikes a reasonable balance

IN TAKING on gangs involved in drug dealing and violence, police have certain investigative tools, ranging from the use of cooperative witnesses to so-called “controlled drug buys,” in which officers pose as customers. After those methods are exhausted comes the arduous work of trying to convince a Superior Court judge to approve a wiretap of a suspect’s phone. If the court finds that there is sufficient cause to target the suspect, and that there is no other way to obtain the evidence than to tap his or her phone, officers settle into a state-of-the-art wiretap room and hope for a break.

Getting to that point, however, is a lot harder in Massachusetts than other states, according to the state attorney general’s office. That’s because state law permits wiretaps based only on evidence of a “continuing conspiracy among highly organized and disciplined groups’’ engaged in “supplying illegal goods and services.’’ Essentially, it is a narrowly tailored, 1960s-era law aimed at disrupting the activities of the New England Mafia. But organized crime figures no longer occupy a fearsome position in the criminal hierarchy in Massachusetts. Today, urban gangs are far more likely to drive up the murder rate and destabilize communities. Yet their loose organizational structures often place them outside the scope of the wiretap law.

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A new bill sponsored by Attorney General Martha Coakley and the co-chairs of the Legislature’s public safety committee specifically removes the organized crime requirement and updates the definition of wire communication to explicitly include cellphones. The proposed law would increase the number of people who are candidates for wiretaps, but it is aimed squarely at dangerous criminal activity, not the privacy rights of Massachusetts residents. While any expansion of governmental surveillance power should be met with caution, the central elements of the bill are sound. It deserves to pass.

Current law is out of sync with 21st-century crime patterns and technology. In 2011, for example, Supreme Judicial Court justices Ralph Gants and Judith Cowin warned that electronic surveillance is unavailable as a means to investigate a “substantial share of the murders and shootings’’ committed by street gangs. It was a clear signal to the Legislature to update the law. The advice was especially sage given the proclivity of today’s gang members to intimidate witnesses. The most reliable statement is often the gang member’s own words.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts warns that passage would ­allow officers to eavesdrop on private conversations “for virtually any investigative purposes.’’ Indeed, the list of crimes for which suspects may be subject to wiretaps may need to be culled. But for the most part, the law is aimed at serious felonies, including murder and illegal use of firearms. And law enforcement officials are not relieved of their duty to show they have exhausted traditional investigative methods before seeking wiretap authority.

Giving law enforcement broader powers is always a reason for pause. But in this case, there are sufficient reasons to move forward.

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