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Wiretapping Laws In Need of an Update

Essex County District Attorney, Jonathan Blodgett, says Massachusetts law enforcement officials will be seeking an update of the state's wiretapping laws. Police say the move is part of a broader plan to go after human traffickers and drug gangs. Law enforcement hopes that changes in the policy will allow them to use wiretaps beyond traditional organized crime, such as the mafia, to ask judges for wiretaps for narcotic trafficking activity. 

According to Blodgett, "one of the biggest instruments in criminal activity these days is the cellphone. The drug cabals and the human traffickers -- they're all doing it with their cellphones." Blodgett is head of the Massachusetts District Attorney's Association.

Despite the near universal use of cellphones among the state's citizens, Massachusetts' wiretapping law has not been updated to include cellphones, unlike federal law and the laws of many other states. Although not everyone sees the police push to broaden wiretapping options in a positive light. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts is concenrned that updating wiretapping laws could expand government surveillance without concern for privacy rights. Blodgett says privacy should not be of concern because judicial oversight would protect abuse.

Last year, a bill was passed by the state legislature which would have expanded the state's wiretapping laws to cover cell phones, but the bill was withdrawn before signature put it into law. In response to that proposed law, the ACLU's local legislative counsel Gavi Wolfe, cautioned, "we should be very, very wary of law enforcement claims that it needs more and broader powers to listen to our private conversations--by phone or email or text."

The executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, Wayne Sampson, says the states laws are stuck in the old days of La Cosa Nostra, where criminals were using 20th century technology. According to Sampson, "Society has changed and so have the technologies that criminals use. The original statue even refers to pen registers that were used to record numbers dialed from a landline phone. They don't even exist anymore."

Wiretapping laws in Massachusetts are uniquely restrictive, and not only for the police. The state's interception of wire and oral communications statute provide for administration of wiretaps by the police to collect evidence. However, it also limits what ordinary citizens can do with a tape recorder or even their cell phone camera.

Federal wiretapping laws require one-party consent to record a conversation, but Massachusetts law requires all parties to consent. Some citizens have even been arrested and charged with unlawful wiretaps after attempting to record police interactions on their phones.

A woman in Braintree was recently arrested and charged with unlawful wiretapping in a shopping plaza. Pamela Jean Petrino, 49, of Wrentham, got into a heated exchange with Officer Blake Holt. Petrino accused Holt of inappropriately touching her daughter during prior incident. Petrino began walking away, holding her phone close to her chest. Holt said she was apparently recording the interaction, which he said violated "plaza policy" and state law, and placed her under arrest.

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