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Wiretaps: a strong reason why they need to be closely regulated

Ah, yes, wiretaps.

Many of our readers across North Carolina might be quite familiar with this police tool, given its centrality in scores of movies and television shows as a surveillance mainstay enabling law enforcers to secretly hone in on conversations and bring criminals to justice.

Actors portraying cops often don't encounter much resistance when seeking to secure a warrant that allows for the clandestine tapping of a phone.

In real life, getting a warrant to snoop over a phone line is supposed to be less than a slam-dunk proposition. As noted in one recent media article discussing wiretaps, the use of these investigative assists is usually tightly circumscribed by judges, given that they "are among the most intrusive types of searches the police can conduct."

That usually employed reticence when it comes to wiretaps renders news out of one Los Angeles metropolitan sphere quite stunning. In Riverside County, where drug cartel activity looms large, a single state court judge has routinely approved hundreds of warrants. Last year alone, reports USA TODAY, he reportedly "approved three times more taps than all of the federal judges in California combined."

That is troublesome, to be sure, but does it have implications for other states, including North Carolina?

As pointed out in the above-cited article, it indeed does. A quick hypothetical --- closely mirrored in some actual cases -- explains why.

Say that a judge in California -- or some other state -- approves a wiretap. Investigators using the tap believe they have discovered widespread criminal activity across multiple jurisdictions. They tip off law enforcers in a remote state -- say North Carolina -- that they suspect a certain individual in Mecklenburg County of being a drug courier.

The problem, of course, is that local police did not independently discover any evidence giving them probable cause to search or otherwise investigate that person. In some instances, they create a pretext -- as USA TODAY terms it, they "find a reason" -- to come into contact with a suspect identified by a wiretap from another state. In court, the wiretap is never mentioned.

That practice is "insulating dubious police practices from any kind of judicial review," says one civil liberties advocate.

We may revisit the slippery slope of wiretaps in more detail in a future post.

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