Law enforcement officials joined Governor Charlie Baker Tuesday in proposing changes to the state’s wiretapping law, saying antiquated rules restrict their ability to use recording tools to investigate and prosecute crimes, including murder.
The state’s 1968 law allows investigators to use wiretapping tools only in investigations “in connection with organized crime,” a point the Supreme Judicial Court has made clear in recent decisions that overturned murder convictions.
Baker’s bill, which has been sent to the state Legislature, would expand the list of crimes that could be investigated with wiretaps to include murder, human trafficking, the use of explosive or biological weapons, and civil rights violations causing bodily injury.
The bill, according to proponents, would also update the law to address the use of new technology in crimes, allowing investigators to review communications through applications on smartphones and other computer-facilitated communications.
“Overhauling this law to address 21st century technology will help law enforcement better protect the people of Massachusetts,” Baker said at a news conference.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who joined the governor and other prosecutors and several police chiefs, added that the law will provide law enforcement with a vital tool to investigate serious crimes when no physical evidence can be found.
“We really run into a stone wall many times in these instances,” Conley said, noting investigators have been hamstrung for years “because of one simple fact, that the crime was not committed by someone in connection with organized crime.”
Civil liberties groups urged the Legislature to proceed with caution, however, saying the desire to provide law enforcement with new tools must be balanced with privacy protections.
“I think this needs to be methodically and closely examined by the Legislature before additional tools are given to law enforcement, at a time when people are very concerned about privacy rights and their own personal freedoms,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association.
He said lawmakers should consider redefining organized crime to address the prosecutors’ concerns or law enforcement should work with federal authorities and use investigative tools that already exist, rather than expand the list of crimes that could be investigated with wiretaps.
In recent rulings, the state’s highest court has reinforced the limits law enforcement officials face in using the 1968 law, which was created as a tool to combat the Mafia.
In 2014, the court tossed out a man’s 2005 conviction for a murder in New Bedford, saying prosecutors should not have been able to use recorded conversations between the defendant and an informant because the murder was not carried out in connection with organized crime.
In 2011, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants also bluntly cited the limitations in a decision that tossed out secretly recorded conversations of a defendant caught on tape admitting to a 2007 drive-by killing in Brockton.
“The consequence [of current law] is that electronic surveillance is lost as a tool to investigate and prosecute a substantial share of the murders and shootings that occur in the Commonwealth, those committed by street gangs,” Gants wrote in the decision.
The proposal outlined Tuesday would keep in place safeguards such as requiring a judge to grant a warrant for a wiretap and the requirement that the state attorney general or a district attorney must be the ones to apply for the warrant. A wiretap could only be used as a last resort.
Attorney General Maura Healey said that the public and the courts recognize the need to update the law while preserving civil liberties protections.
“This is an important update to an old law that modernizes the law, to allow us to investigate the kinds of crimes we should be investigating,” she said. “I think people see the nature of the work we’re doing out there, and what we’re confronting . . . and there’s a public recognition of the fact that we need to make sure that the laws we have in place reflect the new reality and certainly reflect the new technology.”