BOSTON (AP) — The last time Massachusetts updated its wiretapping law, pay phones dotted the sidewalks and a text typically referred to a book — not a lightning-quick digital message.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey say it’s time the law caught up.
The two are pushing a bill they say will update the law, giving police and prosecutors a stronger hand to solve violent crimes, such as gang-related killings and rape.
“We are limiting our capacity to keep people safe here in Massachusetts if we don’t take the fact that a lot’s happened since 1968 more seriously and make some of these relatively modest adjustments,” Baker said Tuesday.
Healey said updating the state’s wiretapping rules has been a priority of her office, and of her predecessor, former Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley. Earlier bills have been met with lukewarm support on Beacon Hill, in part due to privacy concerns.
Healey said she understands those concerns, but said the bill is focused largely on technology.
“This truly is an update that takes into account that our world looks like this now, with cellphones and with text messages and instant messaging,” she said. “When the statute was originally passed, it was in a world of strictly landlines.”
A key element of existing law that critics point to is language that limits electronic surveillance to crimes “in connection with organized crime.”
They say the narrow phrasing has often been an impediment to prosecutors and note past decisions by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to suppress wiretapping evidence that was not part of an “organized crime” investigation as defined by the law.
The legislation, which has the backing of district attorneys and police, would also allow wiretaps to investigate murder, rape, human trafficking, drug trafficking, certain civil rights violations, possession or use of explosives, and possession or use of biological, chemical or radiological weapons.
It would expand the number of offenses that could be associated with organized crime, including illegal trafficking of firearms, money laundering and creation or dissemination of child pornography.
The bill would also give Massachusetts judges the power to issue search warrants to monitor wireless devices and other modern forms of electronic communication.
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said the bill will make it easier to investigate gang violence and improve the quality of life in the city.
While many defense attorneys acknowledge the technological revolution that has occurred in recent decades, they worry proposed changes could be too sweeping and encroach on the privacy of innocent people.
Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the group was still reviewing the governor’s bill but noted the group has opposed past attempts to expansion the state’s wiretapping authority.
“From a practical point of view, it may in fact serve law enforcement well to have these tools. But from a due process and civil rights perspective, it does raise some serious questions and concerns,” he said.
Baker defended the bill.
“We’re not talking about changing the process here,” the governor said. “You’re still going to have to go before a magistrate. You’re still going to have to demonstrate you’ve exhausted available means prior to making that case. The magistrate is still going to have to rule on whether in fact they agree with you.”
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