The state’s 45-year-old wiretapping law needs to be updated to give police and prosecutors more muscle to clamp down on gun violence, a group of legislators, law enforcement officials, and mayors said Monday.
The group said they were pushing for “critical and long overdue” changes in a bill filed Monday in the Legislature. The bill would expand the scope of electronic surveillance, which is currently limited to organized crime cases, to cases involving drugs and guns, child pornography, human trafficking, and money laundering.
The current wiretapping law was enacted in 1968 with an emphasis on organized crime. Several speakers at a press conference Monday morning at Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office in Boston stressed that that approach was outdated and that Boston’s crime scene has changed.
“I’m unsure of the last time we’ve had a report [that] La Cosa Nostra fired a round in this city,” said Daniel Linskey, Boston’s police superintendent in chief.
“As a former federal prosecutor, I have direct experience with the limitations of the current wiretap statute in Massachusetts,” Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford said in a statement. “These updates . . . will go a long way toward strengthening the Commonwealth’s hand in investigating and prosecuting the kinds of crimes that affect cities across Massachusetts.”
Some were skeptical of the proposed changes, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“Let’s call this what it is,” said ACLU spokeswoman Gavi Wolfe. “It’s not an ‘update.’ It’s a broad expansion of the wiretap law to allow law enforcement to listen in to private conversations for virtually any investigative purpose.”
When asked why the law should be changed now, Coakley referred to the recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., and the threat that gun violence poses to children. She also mentioned a 2011 murder conviction that was overturned by a Massachusetts judge because of a wiretap that was deemed illegal because the case did not involve organized crime.
The group also stressed that the law contained safeguards against “government overreach.” Coakley emphasized that probable cause that a crime is being committed must be shown before a wiretap can be implemented.
“The history of expanding this kind of power advises caution,” Wolfe said. “When law enforcement seeks new ways to investigate people’s private activities, they talk about the need for a narrow ‘update’ and quietly propose major changes.
“It needs a very, very careful look to peel back the rhetoric to find out what freedoms we’d be giving away.”